Friday, December 19, 2014

FilmFriday: Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor is an excellent film and I definitely recommend seeing it. It is the best of the Iraq/Afghanistan films by far, and there is a reason for that: this film doesn’t impugn the motives of the good guys. That said, however, this is a hard film to watch because of the subject matter. It is hard to see monsters like the Taliban prevail over good men.


Directed by Peter Berg and staring Mark Wahlberg, Lone Survivor is the true story of a four-man SEAL team reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan during Operation Red Wings, as told by the mission’s sole survivor, Marcus Luttrell. The mission in question was to track down Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, who had masterminded the killing of numerous Marines in the prior weeks.
The film begins by introducing us to the soldiers, who are played by Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsh and Ben Foster, and their support team, which includes Eric Bana as their area leader. The team is then dropped into the mountains in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan. The team locates the village where Shah is believed to be quartered and they begin their observation, though they are having serious communications problems with their home base.

Before the team can move in on Shah, however, a goat herder and his sons come across the SEALs. The SEALs capture them and debate what to do about them. They know that if they let them go, the Afghans will run straight to Shah and report their presence. That will ruin the mission and get them killed. But they can’t hold them prisoner either if they want to accomplish their mission. Thus, a debate begins about killing them. Ultimately, however, the team decides this would be wrong and they let the herder go.
Shortly thereafter, the SEALs find themselves hunted in the mountains by hundreds of Taliban fighters. As the title suggests, all but Luttrell are eventually killed. Luttrell somehow finds his way to another Afghan village, where the villagers protect him as required by their religious beliefs which require the protection of guests. Another battle ensues.

My Thoughts

My first thought about this film was simple: this was the Iraqi/Afghan film the public wanted to see. This film showed the hardships and hard choices these men faced. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but it doesn’t make the good guys into villains either. It also explains why they were there, both by showing how evil the bad guys are and how there are good Afghans too who need protection. Had Hollywood focused on films like this, rather than trying to slander and politicize these wars, then their track record wouldn’t be an unmitigated list of failed films. But Hollywood couldn’t help themselves and their box office results show the consequences. This film, by the way, made $143 million on a $40 million budget, and has blown away every other post 9/11 war film.

Interestingly, the film isn’t without an anti-war bent either. In fact, in the key scene, you see Navy SEALs debating the murder of a goat herder and his sons. Prior to the rest of the 9/11 films, this likely would have shocked and outraged American audiences, but here it doesn’t feel anti-American at all. To the contrary, it really ultimately shows that these guy choose ethics and morality over common sense, and that kind of makes you proud seeing how much they risk to do the right thing.

The film also shows Americans getting overwhelmed and killed. That too would have been shocking before the other 9/11 films, but here it just goes to highlight the horrible missions we are asking these guys to undertake. This isn’t a statement on American troops being unprepared or incompetent, it is a statement of the odds these men face every day.
So while the film has some things that would have shocked us in 2000, today they don’t. And even then, I think they wouldn’t have outraged us in 2000 so much as they would have just felt more “realistic.” The reason these things don’t outrage us, unlike similar things in other Iraqi films, is that the ethics, patriotism and motivations of the Americans are never at issue in this film. There is no suggestion that these guys want to torture people, that they are trying to steal oil or other resources, or that they hate all Afghans because they are racists. These are genuinely good guys caught in a crappy situation. That’s why audiences responded well to this, but rejected the rest of Hollywood’s Iraq/Afghanistan sewage.

My next thought is that I hated watching this film. Don’t get me wrong, this was a strong and compelling film. It was well shot, well acted and well written. The highs are high and the lows are low and the film is super thoughtful. It is an excellent film.

...but, I hated watching this film because of the subject matter. It sucks thinking that these guys, with so much to offer the world, died fighting such animals. It sucks knowing that these creatures will continue long after we’ve gone, killing and torturing and destroying everything and everyone their sick religion doesn’t like. It sucks knowing that there are great men of courage, like Mohammad Gulab, who saved Luttrell and protected him, who must now fear being destroyed by the animals who form the Taliban. That’s not how life should be.
Basically, this is a great film with a very depressing and outraging subject matter. It makes you proud of the good guys, but depressed that the bad guys probably will one day prevail, and it makes you sick that these people exist.

Finally, I will say that the one problem I had with the film was that I have seen so much in reality TV on the Discovery Channel (and the such) that it’s hard for films to have the same impact. It’s hard to compete with the real thing, and many of the documentaries about the men who fight these wars are very compelling. This one, however, does hit home as it is a true story, and they do end the film by showing you the real men... a very sad moment.



Anonymous said...

Good review Andrew,

It is the best movie of the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict and one of only three that I can think of that is worth a dam along with Zero Dark Thirty and Taking Chance.

I was originally worried that Mark Wahlberg was too light weight to play the role, he is likeable on screen but isn't someone I would normally take to seriously. But he nails this role.

It is realistic and horrifying watching the SEALs getting attacked by the Taliban, it is very hard to watch. I loved how there was no politics, no judging of the SEALs, they just told their story without pushing a POV on us.

I loved how it showed the actions of the Afgans in the village that helped Marcus, most recent war movies show only the stereotype or Afghans as one dimensional characters.

I'm hoping that American Sniper can help continue this trend of good, truthful, non political Iraq/Afghan war movies.


shawn said...

Haven't seen it yet, but it is in my Netflix cue.

ScottDS said...

Peter Berg had to direct Battleship in order for Universal to let him make this movie.

I'm convinced that this film ultimately works because it was a passion project, and not a cash grab (or whatever the political equivalent of a cash grab is). It's a great movie and, not having read the book, I really had no idea where things were gonna go (the title notwithstanding).

Then again, some of the, uh, other movies were probably passion projects, too. And I didn't hate watching this movie. The United 93 movie, on the other hand, is absolutely unwatchable. Riveting, but unwatchable.

Based on the success of this film, maybe they'll finally turn Col. Matthew Bogdanos' Thieves of Baghdad into a movie. It was my answer when we did the "What book would you like to see made into a movie" debate question.

And the million dollar question is, can we make a film that is pro-troop (i.e. doesn't question their motivations) but is still anti-war? Or at least anti-politician/bureacrat?

Tennessee Jed said...

I first became aware of Operation Red Wings when Luttrell published his book. A compelling story that reminds me of the valor of our fighting men and women, in particulat, special forces. When I heard Peter Berg was going to direct, I was overjoyed. He respects the military, and I enjoyed Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom (although the latter was too morally ambiguous). He was originally going to cast Taylor Kitsch from FNL t.v. series as Marcus. The money people wanted Wahlburg, and that was a fine choice. Luttrell served as advisor and was given a large cameo role. That helped with the authenticity.

I saw this in a state of the art commercial theater when it was released. It was far too loud, but it is one of those few films I had to see as soon as possible. I am not ashamed to say I cried at the end.

I have a state of the art 8 person home theater which was designed and built by one of the top acoustical engineers in the industry. When you can knock the volume down to a still loud but not painful level, the HD soundtrack is simply stunning.

If you are interested, read the book by Luttrell, and the book Victory Point which covers both Red Wings and Whalers. People sometimes incorrectly call it Red Wing. The operational names for the missions were taken from NHL teams.

Tennessee Jed said...

I should mention that Victory Point is written by Ed Darrack, an embedded journalist who followed the Marine 2nd Battalion/3rd regiment into the Chowkay Valley and their own encounter with Ahmad Shah (a.k.a. "Rick James" for those that have seen the film.)

Tennessee Jed said...

another interesting concept involves the dilemma facing the SEAL team about the goat herders and kids. The team was split. It may come out in better detail in the book. Under rules of engagement, they could have killed all the goat herders. Failure to do put them at much greater risk of an engagement when their mission was only to identify Rick James. One of the members was mainly worried about being put in prison by some do gooder like Di Fi for killing kids. And yes, the fact they were kids did have a huge impact. These guys are good guys doing a terribly dangerous job. I mean, unless you are a jihadist, who wants to kill kids??? What the film does bring out though very well is that the team essentially traded their lives for kids lives, and those same kids hated them, and helped to kill them without batting an eye.

Tennessee Jed said...

My final thought is that if you read Victory Point, their is nothing but admiration for the SEAL team, but not so much about the top officers back at headquarters. This was made a joint-op between the Marines and the SEALS. The Marines had been there, and were probably more familiar with the conditions high in the Hindu-Kush. As it turns out, they had better radio's which would not have failed. That may well have saved not only the 4 man team, but also possibly the lives of the rescue operation that was shot out of the sky and resulted in the largest loss of life to special forces ever. Basically, the point of view from the Marines is that it probably would have been an easier mission for the Marines

Koshcat said...

Great review and I am looking forward to seeing this film. Your description reminded me how I felt after Zero Dark Thirty. I thought it was a really good film. It shows torture perhaps being a little more effective than reality but mostly it is a detective story. What I liked about it is that the movie is an adult movie; it was not written or directed for 15-25 y/o boys. There is no comic relief or fart jokes. It was serious which is also its downfall. I don't really have a strong desire to see it again.

Tennessee Jed said...

you guys might find the non-link I am posting here interesting regarding some of the (probably) unavoidable back and forth. Personally, when I read the book Victory Point, I did not get the sense they were trying to rip Luttrell to the degree the blogger claims. The number of Rick James' fighters is one central issue. I don't know, ultimately, if the number really matters, The SEALS were on the low ground and outflanked. I doubt either Marcus or anyone else could say with certainty. The more logical complaint is that SEALS are not supposed to write about this stuff. I suspect The Bush family had something to do about it since they saw it as a way to help gain support for our troops.

AndrewPrice said...

Howdy everyone! Sorry I haven't been around today, but it's been one of those days -- lots of medical stuff.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks! I agree with you about the best of these movies. Taking Chance was super hard to watch. I don't think I've ever seen a film that made me feel more emotional than that one.

I totally agree about them showing the good guys in the Afghan village. That was a very timely reminder that there are good, heroic people over there too. That definitely goes against the stereotype Hollywood typically uses.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, It took me a while too, but I'm very glad I watched it.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think what made this work is simple: it didn't try to make the audience hate the Americans. Compare this with something like Green Zone, where you are told from the opening frame that the American military and American soldiers are rotten, murderous racists.

Absolutely you can make a film that is pro-troop and yet anti-war. We Were Soldiers is the perfect example of one. Unlike Platoon, the troops are shown to be honorable and decent men who care about each other and their mission. But the whole idea of waging that war was attacked by the film, which lays out the conservative case against Vietnam.

All Quiet On The Western Front is another. The soldiers are shown to be good kids who get pulled into the war and do their best while suffering horrifically. The whole film points out how futile their ordeal is and what a waste war ultimately is. But it never slanders the troops.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks a bunch for all the added detail! :D

Like you, I fully admit that I cried at the ending. It's impossible not to when they start showing you the photos of the real guys and their wives and you realize how tragic it is that these guys had to die. It's just wrong.

On Luttrell, I understand that a lot of people are upset that he wrote the book, but this is one of those times where I think it's important that people get to see what really happened. Too many people think that war is "surgical" and that these guys can't be hurt, and I think it's an important eye opener to see some of the best we have to offer just get overwhelmed. It's important for Americans to understand that this is not easy and not without cost.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, Thanks! That's exactly right. This film was written to tell a real story, not entertain blockbuster audiences. And the story it tells is outrageous and tragic and horrible, but also inspiring. It makes you very proud of these men, but deeply sad at their fate. In that regard, it is very much like Zero Dark Thirty.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, let me second again what Scott said about Taking Chance. If you haven't seen that film, you really should. It's one of the most powerful films I've ever seen. It will rip your heart out.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks, Andrew, this is a great review!
I read the book not to long after it came out and was happy to see they did a fine job with the film.
The book, of course, covers a lot more than the film could, given the time restraints, so I highly recommend it to anyone who liked the film.

I'm glad Marcus worked so hard to ensure the film was as accurate as possible, and I know he did it for his brothers to honor their memory and sacrfices, not for personal gain or glory.

This film is, indeed, the best war film of the Afghanistan/Iraq wars and to say it's gripping is an understatement.
They did an amazing job with such a relatively small budget.

This film shows how great war films can be without being anti-military, anti-American, or empathetic to terrorists.
It was refreshing not to see all the same, tired, stupid cliches that so many far left film makers like to use, and instead see solid storytelling, likable characters, good acting, directing, stunts (man, I bet these stuntmen got a helluva workout), and an all around a good job.

I'm betting that American Sniper will also be good, because Clint Eastwood directed it and Bradley Cooper has nothin' but love for our troops.
War films are always much better when directors and actors strive to be accurate, tell a good story, and in the process honor the sacrifices our young men and women warriors make against all odds.

Tennessee Jed said...

Taking Chance is also a lovely film. Beautifully filmed, and economically directed at about 90 minutes, it was produced and directed by a young man who grew up down the street from where I did in Havertown, Pa. named Ross Katz (although a generation younger.) I am surprised that HBO first aired this project since it actually treated soldiers in a respectful way. Maybe they were trying to learn the lesson of Vietnam when returning soldiers were spat on and called murderers by the left. It was a switch to "love the soldiers, hate the war" mode.

Kit said...

Saw Lone Survivor in theaters. Great movie.

Taking Chance and Zero Dark Thirty are also great. Andrew is right about Taking Chance. Very powerful.

Kit said...

I don't think it is possible to watch even a clip or trailer of Taking Chance without getting a lump in one's throat. Andrew is right, it will rip your heart out.

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