“Lone Survivor”

Lone Survivor ReviewIn 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 [1] 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. [2]  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. [3]  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.


[1] 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)

[2]  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)

[3]  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

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3 Responses to “Lone Survivor”

  1. Josh The Younger says:


    This wasn’t a perfect movie by any means. I thought the setup was merely passable as an introduction to the “characters” and their mindsets, There were also a couple shots during the otherwise excellently done firefight which seemed to essentially be trailer shots (slow mo shot of the four marines jumping off a ledge while dirt kicks up dramatically in the air behind them as an rpg hits the spot they were just standing). That being said, four things about this movie practically forced me to overlook those weak points.

    First, the movie was intensely apolitical. Sure, the subject matter is going to (and has already) inevitably stir up political vitriol, but the movie itself doesn’t even care. To my memory, President Bush is never mentioned, the justice of the war is never brought up, no ethical viewpoint is sermonized. I thought that was an excellent choice, especially because it is clear throughout the course of the movie that the Seals themselves don’t care about the politics.

    Second, the cinematography was excellent. In a lot of war films, the shots are blurry, shaky, claustrophobic and just plain disengaging. I knew I was in for something different when the camera focused clearly on the Seals’ faces (scraggly facial hair and all), weapons (didn’t feel like your typical eye-candy prop at all), and even took the time to pan out at times to lend a sense of context to the ongoing firefight.

    Third, the movie presented a very startling depiction of nobility without glorifying any one side of worldview. In the case of the Americans, the film even goes so far as to show what really happened – that not all the Seals wanted to let the captured goat herders go. It doesn’t sugar coat that argument or attempt to justify it, it just displays it in all its flawed humanity. Also, [READ FURTHER AT YOUR OWN RISK] I found it interesting and intensely gratifying that I walked out of the theater thinking that the people in the village were portrayed as the most selflessly noble people in the film. Unlike the American soldiers, they could have simply walked away (particularly at the river when nobody would have ever found out if he had just left the scene quietly).

    Finally… I haven’t cried at a movie in years. YEARS. I cried at the end of this one. And the third death scene is… not for the faint of heart. Anyone who claims that this is military recruitment propaganda either was on a popcorn break during that scene or underestimates the intelligence of the average American young adult.

    • I agree with almost everything you said, Josh. This is not a piece of propaganda. Zero Dark Thirty was propaganda. This was something else entirely.

      Two other quick thoughts. First, while I understand what you are saying about the lack of characterization, I actually think that was intentional on the filmmaker’s part. This was a movie about the formation and maintenance of an elite community. They exist to serve as a unit, not to revel in individual glories. And I thought that point was beautifully portrayed when the one solider looks at the others and says, “I care about you. I care about you. And I care about you.” (rough paraphrase)

      Second thought. If you recall, there was at least some recognition of politics. Think back to the discussion they have regarding the goat herders. How will this play on CNN? Couple that with Luttrell’s comments (mentioned in the article above) and I think there is at least some argument to be made for the film not being entirely apolitical. It’s small point, but I want to be fair.

      • Josh The Younger says:

        First point: Oh I agree, that was a very powerful line. But later in the film, the third Seal tells Marcus to make sure his significant other (wife I believe? my memory is foggy) knows how much he loves her. Also, interspersed through the earlier parts of the film we get the whole “arabic horse” sub-plot, which, granted, is played up for laughs, but I feel that if the film was going to spend that much time acknowledging familial relations, they should have spent a bit more quality time on the matter (a key exception being the brief social media chat scene, which I thought was pretty cool, in a sappy, newlywed sort of way). I guess I just felt a little offput by the balance (or, perhaps, lack thereof) between the concept of the Seals being a unit and the Seals being individual family men.

        Second: that scene had gone through my head, but I chose to discount it because that scene was so very human. To me, at least, that scene seemed very organic and non-preachy–less a statement against CNN than just another component of the wrench that has suddenly been thrown in the gears of their mission. In hindsight, though, I can absolutely see why you and others would bring it up.

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