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What to Make of a Movie?


On Friday, I went to the opening of Lone Survivor, the new Mark Wahlberg film about Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the only member of a four-man team to survive a mission in Afghanistan that involved the attempted kill or capture of a high-ranking Taliban leader. The movie has attracted both negative and positive responses and reignited the debate over whether Hollywood glamorizes combat, or is biased toward movies that put American foreign policy in a negative light.

This is an interesting question, as are most in which two opposed sides view the same reality in such a completely different light. Some anti-war activists have called the movie little more than a multi-million dollar recruiting film, while many right-wing hawks (and their friends at Faux News) belittled the media establishment for not getting behind the movie or creating the same sort of buzz that it did for films like The Hurt Locker, which might be viewed as less aggrandizing, though I'm not sure that's a fair assessment (and remember that The Hurt Locker couldn't even get a distribution deal in Hollywood until it became the darling of the independent film festival circuit).

When he shot Saving Private Ryan, Stephen Spielberg famously said that all movies are inherently anti-war movies. In a recent and worthwhile column in the Atlantic, Calum Marsh laments that the takeaway from Lone Survivor is the exact opposite – that all films about war tend to end up carrying a pro-war message, almost by necessity through the art of dramatization. While he makes some good points about the film, I'm not sure that his is a fair assessment.

Not unlike Saving Private Ryan, there is very little romantification of combat in Lone Survivor. The violence is intensely graphic, but it never seems as if it is so vividly portrayed purely for the sake of entertainment. Rather, one gets the impression that director Peter Berg is trying to convey the sheer brutality of the experience described by Luttrell, who was literally on his last leg and seemingly not long for this world when a man from a local village pulled him out of a creek, after the other members of his team had finally succumbed to horrific, drawn out deaths in an artless firefight that I cannot fathom giving anything but second thoughts to would-be soldiers.

Unlike many films in the action movie genre that endow our elite forces with superhuman abilities, Lone Survivor also seemed unique in that it chips away at the myth that simply becoming a Ranger, a SEAL or Delta Force commando will mean that all you have to do is show up for battle and your elite training will do the rest. As moviegoers learned – and Luttrell and company surely knew going in – there is very often not enough difference between elite and ordinary soldiers to overcome advantages in numbers, knowledge of terrain and other factors which often prove decisive in individual battles, contrary to what recruitment propaganda often suggests.

As for Marsh's assertion that the film both humanizes and heroifies the American soldiers, while their counterparts were portrayed in a manner akin to "cartoon villainy—the realm of the black hat and the twirling moustache" – again, this seems like too harsh of an assessment. I thought that the film did a good job of weighing the age-old dilemma of whether there can truly be such a thing as morality during the act of armed combat and whether a society that operates at least on the pretense of being civilized, can thereby put themselves at a fatal disadvantage against more butcherly enemies.

Without giving away any more than is in the trailer, the SEAL team has their position compromised when an old man and two young kids herding goats come upon them in the hills, as they recon the village where the Taliban leader has been spotted. Knowing that if they let the Afghan villagers go, they will almost certainly run back and alert the large squad of Taliban soldiers as to the presence of American soldiers, they briefly consider “terminating the compromise.” Squad leader Mike Murphy ultimately decides against such measures and bedlam quickly ensues.

However, Luttrell is ultimately rescued by an anti-Taliban Afghan man who risks his family's safety and indeed brings death to several of his fellow villagers by harboring the badly-wounded American soldier and ultimately facilitating his rescue. The message seems to be that war is much more complicated than the us vs. them themes it's often reduced to, and that the pound of flesh is rarely paid by those who start and/or perpetuate the fight, but rather by people like both the villagers and Luttrell's brethren soldiers.

So far as the portrayal of the Taliban forces, I think we'd be hard pressed to find anyone unwilling to concede that they have largely proven themselves to be a primitively-brutal and even barbarous force. I'm not sure how Berg would be expected to paint a more empathetic portrayal. As for Marsh's claim that the film failed to ask whether the mission was worthwhile in the first place, they were a SEAL team and intel had produced the exact known whereabouts of a high-ranking Taliban leader who had 20 Marines killed the week prior. You can debate the worthiness of the war at large, and I'd note that I was opposed to it from the outset and at all points supported a withdrawal. But this was the story of Luttrell's squad – SEALs who were already over there and were given a mission to do exactly what they were put there to do.

Combat, especially the recounting of actual battle, has always been ripe material for the dramatic arts because it provides a bottomless well of the main ingredient – conflict. Long before Shakespeare wrote, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” Aeschylus, Homer and Virgil were telling famous tales of epic battles in ancient Greece and Rome. It's certainly a part of our culture, all of which can be a factor in a young person's decision to join the military. I do recall many occasions in which my fellow soldiers and I passed time during basic training and paratrooper school quoting films like Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Dead Presidents. Whether they were more instrumental in any of us being there than books like The Naked and the Dead or For Whom the Bell Tolls, or the way military valor had been depicted in our history classes or at the family dinner table, I'm not so sure. 

Our infatuation with vicariously experiencing this seminal, if rotten aspect of humanity seems universal, and while some of it runs the gamut from propaganda to pornography, I wouldn't lump this film in with that bunch. Had it been an exciting, but ultimately successful route that Berg and Whalberg were immortalizing on film, that might be considered a recruitment tool. However, Lone Survivor left me feeling hollowed out, sickened by the disproportion of death and dismemberment doled out to honest men with good intentions on both sides of a battle, while asking for the umpteenth time why we spent a decade blowing each other up in that godforsaken place. I'm not sure it gets more anti-war than that.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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