I sat in the theater as people began to walk out of Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, the film based on the book by the same name by Marcus Luttrell, the one Navy SEAL who survived a 2005 raid on a Taliban leader in Afghanistan. The best review I can give you was my experience as the credits rolled. One by one and then in larger groups people got up and left in the quietest procession that I can remember seeing in recent memory.
That is a great testament to the success of the film and the power of the story. Some films are made to entertain, others to persuade or to enlighten. Lone Survivor is a film that exists to bear witness.
Bear witness I did. I watched the dedication of the men who want the honor of standing for their country in one of its most demanding branches of service during the opening credits montage of SEAL school. I saw the camaraderie and support that the SEALS enjoyed on base together, the sort of bond that would drive rescue forces to rush into open battle without any fire support, because their brothers needed them. I saw the professionalism and dedication of the American fighting man highlighted again and again as they trained, marched, measured, and fought.
The son of an Iwo Jima survivor, I have spent my entire life watching and reading military history whenever I could get my hands on it. I have heard survivors’ stories for as long as I could remember.
This film does an excellent job. Though the actors involved are not themselves servicemen, they were convincing. The action was well-directed with a mixture of clarity and chaos that conveyed the feeling and ability of the combatants to keep track. The feeling of mortal danger and deadly combat did not, it turns out, require a special effects department that would delight in gore and horror of violence done to mankind. Sacrifice and courage are here in spades, and they are the core of the story.
There are some excellent moral lessons to be learned in this film, the never-quit attitude of the Navy SEALS, the tough moral choices that our servicemen have made to spare lives they did not know at great risk to their own, the sort of choice that defines the line between fighting ability and moral courage. Whether history or fiction, a true fighting story must convey a truth about life or it is not worth telling, and here the choice between safety with evil or danger with integrity was critical and well presented. The choice is not an easy one, and everything hinged upon it.
The film was blissfully free of hateful anti-military stereotypes that Hollywood seems to live on. Military servicemen are not saints or heroes washed in mystic rivers of old. They have flaws, weaknesses, and more, but it is gracious and appropriate that this story is not about that. It is the story of a survivor and the men who fought and died at his side.
I would submit to you that the film functions as an excellent definition of the difference between the words beaten and defeated.
Great review, Bruce. I’m glad to hear it eschews the easy tropes and focuses on what sound like wonderfully flawed characters.