This Sunday night, the stirring Afghanistan-based war film “Lone Survivor” is up for two Oscars for Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Best Achievement in Sound Mixing. In this filmmaker’s opinion, the golden statuettes deservedly go to this moving, honorable film. More importantly, though, is that over the next few weeks, most of America’s movie-plexes will begin closing out their runs of “Lone Survivor.” The film, directed by Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg as the real-life U.S. Navy SEAL Marcus Lutrell is based on Luttrell’s book of the same name. Marcus Lutrell is literally the lone survivor of a military operation (called “Operation Red Wings”) which went awry after he and three other Navy SEALS came upon, then let some unarmed Taliban goat herders go free. Sadly, nineteen of America’s bravest warriors would die on an Afghan mountain later that day. To simply place this dramatic, personal movie into the simple genre box of “war film” does the motion picture, its makers and the actual heroes portrayed in the film a disservice.
“Lone Survivor” is not a classic war film, nor is it like some of the modern films that have moved and inspired audiences to honor the sacrifices and heroism of today’s military. What Mr. Berg and Mr. Wahlberg (also a Producer) have crafted is a film that is closer in theme to “Black Hawk Down” (2000), than it is to “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) or “Battlecry” (1955) or even the Steve McQueen starrer “Hell Is for Heroes” (1962). It is not a pro- or anti-war film. It is a tale of survival and brotherhood under nearly impossible circumstances. Unfortunately, the film’s lack of politics didn’t stop some reviewers from attacking it as hyper-masculine, uber-patriotic and overly celebrating those serving in our armed forces. Ridiculous notions all, but then it is easy to type and publish such views from the safety of your laptop. Even safer while sipping a cappuccino in a L.A. or Manhattan coffee shop.
The film version of “Lone Survivor” raises a lot of questions and not just of the kind that made the intriguing CNN footage of Jake Tapper interviewing Mark Wahlberg and the real Marcus Luttrell go viral. Jake essentially asked Marcus… Was it all worth it? Isn’t Afghanistan hopeless? Were the nineteen men’s deaths senseless in a larger picture? To say that Jake and Marcus were two ships passing in the night on the subject was an understatement. They may have just been talking past each other, but Marcus took Jake’s questioning as a discounting of his and his team’s personal sacrifice. However, that wasn’t what Jake was questioning. What he likely was questioning (after seeing the film the day before) was since the U.S. is double-timing it out of Afghanistan… whether ALL the sacrifices the U.S. made in Afghanistan were worth it. Personal valor, honor and sacrifice for your brothers-in-arms in the Military World have no equal in the Civilian World. Yet at the end of the day or the mission, we Civilians must still ask if the overall outcome was worth the individual sacrifices by our Military brethren? This is a tough question and an opening to what author Ken Coleman calls “a messy conversation.”
For the record, Jake Tapper is major supporter, friend and ally of the Military and he certainly “gets it.” But, the Tapper-Luttrell exchange crystallizes the seeming disconnect between the Civilian World and the Military World. There always has been some level of disconnect, but not anything like the one America has today where less than 1% of families have a direct familial connection to our Military. Personally, I have a World War II vet father, five veteran brothers, one veteran nephew and two nephews currently serving our country. It has been my experience as a civilian that most of my fellow Americans do “get it” when it comes to supporting our Troops, even if they don’t support the mission. However, most of these same Americans don’t understand the Military and bonding respect that it breeds amongst their members and their families. Reading a newspaper or watching a TV news show on your couch just doesn’t capture it. Nor should it.
That said, “Lone Survivor” brings its audience deep inside the horror that is close-quarters combat and what battlefield survival is like. No recent film challenges the notion of “supporting the troops” like “Lone Survivor” does. To this end, the film’s message could be that to truly support the troops, one should know what they go through while on faraway battlefields. Otherwise, such “support” is jingoistic and a cliché. But do audiences and movie studios really want people to know such things? There have been a bevy of Hollywood films covering the unpopular Iraq War, yet fewer on Afghanistan which they consider “the good war.” As a result, there has been a great deal of consternation from Right-sided America towards these other films and their makers while silence reigns from Left-Sided America. Interestingly, the based-on-truth “Lone Survivor” engenders the Right-Left gulf without even trying. The Right justly venerates the film, while the Left mainly waits for the Oscars to come on their TV. A shame for them as the non-political “Lone Survivor” forces its audiences to think… no matter where they land on the political chart. The film’s focus on what happens to a small four-man unit of U.S. Navy SEALS after it reaches its mission on a mountain intersects both the Military World and the Civilian World.
“Lone Survivor” is a big picture with no big ideas except to make sure you know what these men went through on a non-descript mountain full of false summits and Taliban fanatics. In fact, one of Luttrell’s brothers-in-arms asks him to make sure that the world knows of what happened to them on that mountain. The overwhelming odds that Michael Murphy, Matt “Axe” Axelson, Danny Dietz and Marcus Luttrell all face in the film are nearly impossible to overcome. Four men who are as close to invincible supermen that we could have could not be expected to survive such a ferocious onslaught by a small well-armed Taliban army on its home turf. How else could they end up jumping down the sides of a mountain to escape the Taliban and keep fighting?
What audiences see during this special film is the bone-crushing pain, flesh-tearing shrapnel and bullets and the bewildering fog of war that engulfs these finest of American men. They also see how mentally tough and self-aware a SEAL must be in order to perform and survive. A recently retired Navy SEAL, Senior Chief Kristin Beck, told me that they aren’t trained to fall down mountains, “But take any pro football player [and] tumble him down a hill…. 80% of them will make it. Now take that same pro ball player and train him an extra year so he’s a better, tougher overall athlete… and that’s a SEAL.”
As impressive as “Saving Private Ryan” and “Blackhawk Down” as films and how they both question the idea of how many deaths are worth a mission, “Lone Survivor” brings the physical and painful nature of battle home like no other. For Civilian World audience members who have no idea what the Military World is about or what our troops may actually face while providing the freedom they enjoy – this film should wake them up. For all the family members of our Military’s troops – this film validates and makes clear why those who serve in harm’s way are such special people and why we owe them so much.
In this time of proposed massive cuts to our Armed Forces, the medical care provided to it and retirement benefits to veterans, this is important stuff to remember. There are roughly 1,500 active-duty SEALS broken up into teams of roughly 100 each who are based on both coasts of the United States. While SEAL Team #6 is the most famous and for good reason, there are at least nine other Teams defending our nation across the world. American film-goers should make the time if they haven’t already to see “Lone Survivor” in a proper movie theater where all the Oscar nominated sounds and stirring story can be heard and felt. That would be a good way to “Support The Troops.”