In 2005, in the remote Pech District of Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, four Navy SEALS were assigned the unenviable task of navigating through extremely rough, mountainous terrain with the goal of providing real time surveillance on the location and activities of Ahmad Shah, an insurgent leader who had aligned his guerilla “Mountain Tigers” with the Taliban forces opposing the US occupation. When the SEALS were inadvertently discovered by local goat herders, the four frogmen faced a devastating choice. Kill the captive herders, who they had good reason to believe were in contact with the Taliban, or set them free and face the wrath of Shah’s insurgents.
Over the past few weeks, as Lone Survivor has stormed the box office  and garnered generally favorable reviews, it has also found itself the target of a fair amount of criticism. While few seem to doubt the quality of the filmmaking itself, there is a question regarding the veracity of many of the film’s central claims.
For instance, there is a question as to how many Afghan fighters actually attacked the SEAL operatives. Early figures suggest that the insurgents numbered somewhere between 10 to 50 men.  In fact, Marcus Luttrell, himself (the titular “lone survivor” of the mission), filed an official action report in which he stated that they were attacked by no more than 20-30 men.  But this number slowly grew over time as he gave interviews to various media outlets. In his memoir, he finally settled on a number ranging between 140 to 200 men, which is a fair approximation of what the film actually portrayed on screen. So the question is: have the numbers been artificially swollen to heighten the dramatic and heroic nature of the SEAL team that was killed?
Bear in mind, this is not the only issue that critics have raised. There are similar questions regarding just how serious a threat Ahmad Shah truly was. Was he as closely connected to Al Queda and Osama bin Laden as the film claims? Just how many Marines had he killed in recent weeks? [Spoiler alert] Was he, himself, killed by the villagers as the film portrays?
To be honest, I was aware of these questions before I went in to the film. And truth be told, the questions had diminished my enthusiasm for the movie. If you want to make the claim that your film is “based on a true story,” than you have a certain obligation to make sure that “the facts” that you present are “true” to the best of your knowledge. Otherwise, you leave yourself open to charges of intentional distortion for the purpose of sensationalizing the story.
But here’s the funny thing I realized while watching the film. While the details of Lone Survivor might justifiably be questioned, the “truth” of what the film is portraying cannot be called into doubt. Like so many other soldiers before them, these four men faced a moral decision that would define their lives in a way that most of us would never care to imagine. Consider, if you will, the words of the “lone survivor”:
“It was the stupidest, most southern-fried, lame-brained decision I ever made in my life. I must have been out of my mind. I had actually cast a vote which I knew could sign our death warrant. I’d turned into a f – – king liberal, a half-assed, no-logic nitwit, all heart, no brain, and the judgment of a jackrabbit.”
Looking back on the moment in question, Luttrell clearly regrets the decision that he and his teammates made. But what if things had gone the other way? What if Luttrell and his companions had made the decision to execute the three goat herders on nothing more than a suspicion? Could they have lived with the idea that they had killed potentially “innocent” non-combatants?
For those of us who have never served in live combat – for those of us who have never had to make these sorts of tough choices – these are issues that are worthy of our time and our attention. And while I sincerely doubt that we will ever know the full “historical truth” of what happened on that mountainside, I believe that the larger “truth” of what soldiers face on a day to day basis was fairly and accurately captured. What’s more, I believe the shocking end to this mission – an end that no one could foresee coming – is worthy of capturing and celebrating. For in the unexpected turn of events that brought the mission to a close, [Spoiler alert] we see a picture of humanity that challenges many of our deepest held fears about the stranger and the alien in this world.
In the end, I believe that Lone Survivor is a film well worth seeing. It is a film that can rightly hold its head up high next to classics such as Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket. And some day, when the time comes to show my sons a film about the horrors of modern war, this is a film to which I will a turn.
 Lone Survivor had the second highest all time opening weekend for a film released in January. It made $37.8 million over three days, far surpassing the similarly themed Zero Dark Thirty, which only pulled in $24.3 million. (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=3771&p=.htm)
 Ed Darack in Victory Point suggests 8-10 enemies with a high powered machine gun. Likewise, Lt. Murphy’s Medal of Honor Citation suggests 30-40 enemy combatants. (http://www.onviolence.com/?e=762#11)
 Marcus Luttrell After Action Report: 20-30 enemy (http://www.onviolence.com/?e=762#11)
– See more at: http://www.onviolence.com/?e=762#11