Ever since its release on Jan. 12, Lone Survivor has been making headlines, though few relate to its phenomenal box office performance.
Like so many entertainment offerings these days, the movie, based on the real life story of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, has become a political touchstone, dividing media commentators into those who support its purported militaristic themes and those who decry them as jingoistic warmongering.
After LA Weekly film critic Amy Nicholson called the movie a “snuff film” that trades on the notion “brown people bad, American people good,” right-wing pundit Glenn Beck condemned her as an “ignorant liar.” Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly similarly devoted segments lambasting the reactions of New York Magazine and Atlantic reviewers who criticized the movie’s portrayal of the Taliban as overly villainous.
CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, Jake Tapper, may have sparked the biggest firestorm surrounding the film when he asked Luttrell whether the events depicted in the film didn’t prove that U.S. presence in the Middle East is senseless. However, the award for most graceless reaction must go to left-leaning Time critic Richard Corliss for his observation, “That these events actually happened doesn’t necessarily make it plausible or powerful in a movie, or keep it from seeming like convenient propaganda.”
Actually, it does. There’s little in Lone Survivor (rated R for violence and near-constant profanity) to justify it as either pro- or anti-war. The fact that one SEAL team’s mission to confirm the location of a Taliban leader leads to the largest loss of life ever suffered by the force could be taken as proof of futility or the ineptitude of military leadership in 2005. But then again, the brutality of the Taliban and their hatred of America (which is, if anything, underplayed in the film) argues for a prolonged, dedicated response in spite of such losses.
The most striking moment in the movie comes when the SEALs debate what to do with three Afghan goat-herders who accidently stumble on them and compromise their mission. Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and the rest of his team are acutely aware that freeing these men likely means alerting the enemy to their presence and could lead to their deaths. But they are even more aware of what the American media will do to them if they fail to select this option.
Is their ultimate choice a moral one? Certainly. Was it the right course? Director Peter Berg leaves that open for debate. But it is unquestionable that their fear of being tried and convicted in the media informs the team’s decision, which is fairly ironic given the treatment the movie has undergone since its release.
There’s a reason Lone Survivor is breaking box office records. Yes, it offers a riveting portrayal of soldiers under the severest stress who bear up under it heroically. But it also challenges the viewer to reconsider simpleminded moralizing when it comes to war action.
Midway through the film our ire is raised when our protagonists don’t get help as quickly as they could have because of what seems like an excessively rigid regulation. Later, however, we learn, in the starkest terms, the reason for the policy and the devastating consequences of disregarding it. Though Berg shows the mental bravado elite soldiers must embrace to perform their jobs, he also (though you won’t hear much about this) provides a touchingly empathetic portrait of the Afghan people who suffer daily under the Taliban, and honors them nearly as much as he does the SEALs.
In a fair world, Berg, known for his excellent work on the film and television show Friday Night Lights and his less-than-excellent work in big-budget bombs like Battleship, would be lauded for a significant contribution to the microscopic canon of emotionally layered, thought-provoking films about the war in the Middle East. Instead, like so many writers/singers/actors/directors before him, he finds himself caught in a political crossfire. Unlike many of his colleagues in the entertainment field, nothing about Berg’s creation suggests he wants to be there.