In recent trips to my local Cineplex to catch up with Hollywoodiana, I was genuinely surprised to see what amounted to a PSA on behalf of “Lone Survivor”, a film I saw about a month ago as a DVD screener sent from a publicist in conjunction with the NYFCO awards meeting. As a sign that my fellow critics have not been debased beyond all hope, this supremely stupid militarist movie did not get nominated for a single award. Unlike “Zero Dark Thirty”, it is the sort of film that used to star Chuck Norris or Sylvester Stallone even though some of our more “sophisticated” critics see it as a kind of “war is hell” story. Unlike the typical Norris saga, the film ends ignominiously for the American troops except the “lone survivor”. Too bad he didn’t get a bullet to the head as well. It is based on an incident that occurred during the “war on terror” in Afghanistan but is so bizarrely hyperbolic in the way it depicts Navy Seals that it defies its own claims to be truthful.
Sandwiched between the opening announcements about turning off your cell phone, etc. and the previews of coming attractions, you can see a “featurette” on “Lone Survivor” that is nearly four minutes long. It has snippets from the film as well as interviews with Peter Berg, the director, and Navy Seal veteran Marcus Luttrell, whose book the film is based on. Having seen at least a hundred films in my local Cineplex, an AMC theater, over the years, I have never seen such a “short subject” before, to use the term coined for featurettes in the 1950s. It is basically a bid to muster support for the troops of the kind seen at the Super Bowl and other quasi-Nuremberg rallies of an empire in decline.
The film opens with a typical day at a military base in Afghanistan as the troops engage in roughhousing pranks and haze a new recruit—but all in good fun. Later that day, four of them (Mark Wahlberg who stars as Marcus Luttrell—the lone survivor, the aptly named Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster) take a helicopter ride to a mountaintop overlooking a Taliban-controlled village to prepare for a larger assault that will kill a rebel leader as part of Operation Red Wing in 2005.
As the four Seals survey the village from afar, a group of goat-herders from the village accidentally stumble across their encampment. This forces them to make a decision whether to kill them or to spare their lives. If they are merciful, this will obviously risk them telling the Taliban about their whereabouts, which is what happens. Not long after the herdsman return to the village, a group of fifty Taliban can be seen above them on a nearby mountaintop armed to the gills with AK-47’s and RPG’s. For about an hour, you see the four Seals standing off the Taliban as if the enemy’s bullets both had eyes and were loyal to the stars and stripes. I have not seen a more ludicrous gun fight since “Kill Bill”. If Navy Seals were this invincible, the Taliban would have been defeated long ago.
It is not just the unrepentant Marxist who has noticed the implausible nature of the battle depicted in the film. Ed Darack, the author of a book on Operation Red Wing, offers these remarks:
The only surviving member of the four-man team, Marcus Luttrell, wrote a brief (2 1/2 page) after action report. In it, he stated that he estimated that the reconnaissance and surveillance team was ambushed by 20 to 35 ACM. Twenty was the number that was initially released by CJTF-76 Public Affairs, and that is why the earliest media reports used the number twenty (in the Time magazine article, they state “…probably 5 to 1” as related to the four-man team – meaning 20). Further analysis, the results of which never made it into the press (derived from analysis of signals intelligence gleaned during the ambush and human intelligence derived in Pakistan after the ambush, and videos of the actual ambush) stated the number to be between eight and ten.
But as time progressed, the number quickly inflated from twenty. Some sources state up to 200. I’ve seen figures even higher than this. Ever since a blunt education by Marines in Afghanistan on the subject, I’ve been ever-skeptical of stated enemy numbers. While I was in Afghanistan on my first embed, the Marines taught me about “Afghan Math” – “Just divide by about ten to get the real number ” is the governing directive of “Afghan Math”–when reading enemy numbers in press reports or when the enemy tries their brand of PsyOps over two-way radios (“we have fifty men waiting to ambush you” usually means, maybe, five). I experienced this during my first tag-along with Marines in combat in Afghanistan–listening to a “Taliban commander” talking to Marines over an Icom late one night (on a ridge across the Pech River Valley from Sawtalo Sar). I couldn’t figure out why everyone was laughing. I wasn’t laughing. Turns out “they” didn’t have even five, just the guy on his Icom two-way radio. Of course, he never attacked us, other than verbally.
Marcus Lutrell’s “Lone Survivor” was ghost-written by Patrick Robinson, a British author best known for fictional works featuring heroic American and British soldiers. Typical is “Ghost Force”, a novel about Navy Seals who foil a plot by Argentinians and Siberians (!) to retake the Malvinas as an anti-imperialist plot against Exxon-Mobil. Just the sort of writer who would bring Lutrell’s overactive imagination to fruition.
If Robinson was just the right ghost-writer, Peter Berg was a director whose ideological predispositions were ideally suited for the material as well. Berg can be proud of his work. Wikipedia reports: “Its opening weekend gross made it the second largest debut for any film released in January after the 2008 film Cloverfield’s opening weekend gross of $40.1 million.” That its success is measured against “Cloverfield” should give you some indication about the dire straits of Hollywood filmmaking. “Cloverfield” was an idiotic space invasion movie whose shaky camera effects were enough to induce an epilepsy attack even if you did not suffer from the illness.
Berg’s previous film was “Battleship”, another space invasion movie that was based on a video game and that was geared to the average 15-year-old boy. It opens with 911 type attacks on skyscrapers and climaxes with a WWII vintage battleship being dusted off and used to smite the filthy alien spaceships that bear a striking resemblance to the Transformers. This, of course, is the perfect preparation for a movie like “Lone Survivor”.
On IMDB, Berg describes why he made a film like “Lone Survivor”:
I’m a patriot. I admire our military, their character, code of honor, belief systems. I lived with the SEALs, their families, went to their funerals. I went to Iraq. Did you ever see anyone killed? I did.
“Lone Survivor” was made by Universal Studios, a subsidiary of NBCUniversal that is half-owned by Comcast and half by GE, one of America’s biggest arms manufacturers. Comcast is the world’s largest media and communications corporation by revenue and includes MSNBC as one of its wholly owned subsidiaries. As a cable provider, it is a bitter enemy of net neutrality. The CEO of Comcast is Brian Roberts, an American Jew who has made major contributions to the Obama campaigns.
Every time I run into a film like “Zero Dark Thirty” or “Lone Survivor”, I am reminded of the incestuous ties between the military, big business, and the film industry including the professional critics who praise such films. They are no different from the German journalists who lauded Leni Riefenstahl.
“Lone Survivors” got an astonishingly high rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with 73 percent “Fresh” ratings. It also received an 89 percent favorable rating from Rotten Tomato users, in other words people who registered to voice their opinions but can’t post articles.
NPR’s Ella Taylor opined:
When you don’t know the terrain and you don’t know who’s for or against you, heroics are either beside the point or they extend only as far as survival and solidarity. In this regard, Berg is relentlessly unsparing — in Lone Survivor, we discover what it is like to topple downhill from rock to rock, and what it is like to reach for your gun and find that your hand is missing — but never Tarantino-sadistic.
There’s courage aplenty in Lone Survivor — the day when grunts were made to stand in for American imperialism is long gone and rightly so.
I know Taylor from her days at the Village Voice, when she was a lot more “edgy”. That she can sanctify this glorified version of a Chuck Norris film for a radio station that was originally intended to be an alternative to commercial radio speaks volumes about the dying culture we live in. No, Ms. Taylor, the day when grunts were made to stand in for American imperialism is still very much with us.