I recently watched the movie Lone Survivor – a movie adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s book of the same name. I give the movie an overall B+. There were several things I really liked about it, one glaring thing I didn’t like, and a few omissions which I found regrettable.
Spoiler alert: If you have either read the book or seen the movie, this perspective may interest you. If not, you may want to wait before reading on.
First, a few disclaimers: I do not personally know Marcus Luttrell. I have not been to Afghanistan, nor have I ever been in a desperate firefight – nor for that matter, any kind of firefight that approached the intensity of what Murphy, Dietz, Axelson and Luttrell experienced on that mountainside in Afghanistan. My tactical experience as a SEAL is dated, but I did spend 30 years in the SEAL community, retiring in 2005, and it is from that perspective that I offer my impression of the movie.
What I LIKED about the movie:
– I thought it was a fair representation of ‘team-guy’ SEAL culture. It showed the playfulness and irreverence, the cockiness and humility, and the ability of highly trained young men to gel into a team, to get serious and focus. And I’m sorry, Mrs Smedlap, these All-American warriors do talk that way – most men in combat communicate with each other using extensive and graphic, if not always inspired, profanity.
– I was concerned that the movie might make the SEALs, especially the four men who are the center piece of the movie, seem somehow larger than life, and make them into Hollywood cut-outs of super commandos, but I didn’t see that. Murphy, Axelson, Dietz, and Luttrell, and the other SEALs portrayed in the movie were human and real; it appears that the collaboration between Peter Berg and Marcus Luttrell succeeded in respecting the culture and the guys themselves, without caricaturing them.
– The very beginning of the movie showed what appeared to be actual scenes from BUD/S training, which set up the movie by giving the audience a sense for what it takes to become part of this tribe. This was well done and (thankfully) not overdone – the movie didn’t dwell on it.
– The depictions of life on and off-duty at Bagram and ‘J-Bad’ in Afghanistan were consistent with my experience in deployed Joint Operations Centers, and consistent with what I’ve heard from the guys I know who have spent much time ‘forward’ in the recent wars.
– The firefight scene seemed realistic to me. It was not easy to watch good men give their last measure to save themselves and their buddies, and die doing it. But that is what this movie is about, and the generalities of the firefight appeared realistic and generally well done. It appears that Peter Berg paid close attention to the counsel of Marcus Luttrell and his other (former) SEAL advisors in making this part of the movie.
– It was a nice touch to see Marcus Luttrell himself as an extra, playing one of the SEALs in the movie.
– The movie honored and paid tribute to the Afghanis who stood up to the Taliban in protecting Luttrell.
– The very conclusion of the movie (just before the credits) honored those who were killed on the operation. We saw pictures of those who died on the operation in happier times, with their wives, children, pets and friends, making them human and real – not just names and numbers. I and others in the theater choked up. I was pleased to see that this tribute included the Army Special Operations Helo pilots and crew as well as the SEALs who died trying to rescue these four. The audience in my theater applauded after this part. I was moved.
What I DIDN’T LIKE about the movie:
– I felt that the firefight scene went on too long. I know that one of Marcus Luttrell’s main objectives in supporting this movie was to accurately portray and pay homage to how his brothers honorably fought and died, but I believe a couple of minutes could have been shaved off the firefight scene and devoted to another key part of the story that I felt did not get the attention it deserved – the part that came next.
– I thought that Luttrell’s experience as the ‘lone survivor,’ struggling to survive and evade capture after his team mates were killed, was the most compelling part of the book, and the movie gave this short shrift. It is an amazing story of the strength of the human spirit and one man’s struggle to survive against the odds. All alone, very badly hurt, and nearly delirious from pain, hunger, fatigue, and thirst, Luttrell was able to hide and keep moving for 2-3 days, evading the Taliban who were desperately looking for him. This is barely touched upon in the movie.
– The scene where Luttrell was discovered and taken into custody by the Afghan villager Mohammad Gulab, and the period during which he was protected in the Afghan village under the code of Pashtunwali, were portrayed very differently in the movie than in the book. The movie didn’t do justice to a really fascinating part of this story -the book was much better.
– My main objection to the movie was how it portrayed Luttrell’s final rescue from the Afghan village. It was really cheesy. It was as if Peter Berg suddenly abandoned his respect for the integrity of the story, and defaulted to his Hollywood roots to give us a clichéd Hollywood conclusion. Just as the situation becomes truly desperate, the US (Air) Cavalry pops over the ridge, swoops down into the village and saves the day, shooting the Taliban as they run terrified into the hills. It was like a scene from a 1950’s western: The cavalry arrives just in the nick of time to pull our desperate hero from the jaws of death, and give the Indians their comeuppance. I was waiting for the bugles and the playing of Gary Owen! The version of the rescue that Luttrell told in the book was much more interesting, if less dramatic.
With the exception of the rescue scene at the end, I thought Peter Berg did well keeping the movie and the book essentially in harmony. I forgive (most of) the differences as part of the ‘poetic license’ producers and directors need to create the impact and effect they want in the retelling of the story in an abbreviated format. It did claim to be ‘based on a true story,’ not to be a documentary. The final rescue scene however, was way over the top, and it hurt the movie.
In spite of its flaws, I’m glad the movie was made and I recommend it. It is (mostly) very well done and gives broad exposure to the story of this SEAL squad, and the final hours of three SEALs fighting desperately and bravely, and the 16 other brave men who died trying to rescue them. And by extension Lone Survivor pays tribute to the thousands of American sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines who have died or been seriously wounded fighting in this war, on behalf of the people of the United States and Afghanistan. Hopefully this movie raises the level of awareness, understanding and appreciation for their sacrifices.
For those who are interested in what Marcus Luttrell has done since the
tragedy of Operation Red Wings in 2005, I’ll direct you again to Dan Klaidman’s
excellent recent article on him, written as part of the Hero Project in The Daily Beast here