So. I watched Lone Survivor.
Steven Boone of RogerEbert.com called it “Passion of the Christ for US service members.” He’s not far off. My initial impression was a bit foot-in-mouth: the technical details of the film are very good. Dialogue, weaponry, tactics, communication problems, and even the scenery is spot-on. The audio is a dream, it actually sounds like you’re in a firefight. But minus the pressure waves and +40dB or so…
The story, however, is embellished. I found myself wondering: if this much attention was spent on the fine details—like every single gunshot wound and piece of shrapnel is reproduced in slow motion—why didn’t writer/director Peter Berg focus as much on getting the story right?
“We’re about to take contact.”
I had a hard-on when Taylor Kitsch spoke that line. I mean holy shit, sitting with the Team members in the OP bantering to reduce their anxiety brought me back to the battlefield. I loved a lot of the film, and this was by far my favorite part.
To start off, we’re thrust into Afghanistan and it couldn’t be more accurate. It’s clear that the parts of the film that SEAL veterans had control over is phenomenal. Watching the intro I was transported back to Bagram AF. It looked exactly like it. I could almost smell the onions, sweat, and Dorday bread being cooked at the Bazaar. The garb and language of the Afghans was perfect. The helicopters flying through the mountains reminded me of Afghanistan in a way I wasn’t prepared for. This was a visceral experience and when I got about 15 minutes into the film I wanted to swallow everything that I said about the trailer. I laughed along with the banter of Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) and Marcus Luttrell and having read the book and been in the Corps back in 2005, I welled up thinking about quoting the movie Anchorman with fallen friends.
Well done. I haven’t been touched by a movie since Restrepo.
The communication issues will have anyone who carried a radio in Afghanistan in tears. Comms always went down. And there’s another scene where the SEAL Team QRF rushes out to the airfield only to watch their assigned helicopter support fly away because of a TIC (troops in contact). These tactical details are frighteningly accurate. Air support was always prioritized to combat so this sort of thing happened all the time. Usually when the enemy broke contact to reposition themselves or maneuver for counter-attack…
And the sounds. The hair on the back of my neck stood up when the first shot rang out. Whomever engineered the sound on this film deserves an award. The distinct reports of 5.56 (suppressed and non-suppressed) clashed with the chunky and clapping sounds of AK-47s and RPK machine guns. It gave me chills.
THIS FILM IS FICTION
Get that into your head right now. Chris Marvin, Army helicopter pilot and veteran, wrote in Parade Magazine that “The storyline takes small liberties as well, but the plot is true to life. Most importantly, Mr. Berg goes to great lengths to ensure that the viewer understands that the film depicts a true story.” Slow down, Marvin.
The film is a fictionalized account of a true story that takes many liberties. SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen the movie. The title should clue you in. Let’s list some of the factual errors:
1. Ahmad Shah was a high level Taliban commander. FALSE. Shah ran a little militia called “The Mountain Tigers and was conducting small attacks against coalition forces in order to gain more prestige and hopefully money from Al-Qaeda. (this was very common amongst the Pashtuns) Shah was actually tied to Gulbadin Hekmatyar and Hezb-i Islami. There were so many militias doing the same thing that we just called them all ACM: Anti-Coalition Militia.
2. My favorite error: “Shah killed 20 Marines last week. Maybe he’ll kill 20 the next. Maybe 40.” FALSE.
Indeed, in my post “Lone Survivor, Hollywood, and How Navy SEALs Don’t Stand Post,” I pointed out that it’s easily researchable to find out that only 20 Marines had died in support of Operation Enduring Freedom by June 28, 2005, and only FOUR of those were due to hostile fire. At right is a photograph of the memorial at FOB Mehtarlam for Lcpl Richard P. Schoener and Cpl Nicholas C. Kirven. They were killed on May 8, 2005, in Laghman province, adjacent to Kunar. They were NOT killed by Shah.
3. Muhammad Gula and other brave villagers fight off Ahmad Shah and his militia to protect Marcus Luttrell. FALSE-ISH. Marcus is the only one who was there to tell this story, however, Lone Survivor the book specifically mentions the villagers standing guard, and not getting into a firefight. Now this sort of stuff is forgivable, in my opinion. Peter Berg probably didn’t want to fill the end of his film up with three days of hiding in different villages and caves, but that’s what happened.
4. Ahmad Shah is killed by Muhammad Gula, the Pashtun who rescued Marcus Luttrell. FALSE. In Operation Whalers, conducted from August 14th – 20th, 2005, a member of my platoon shot Ahmad Shah. Someone else killed his son. Shah was medevac’d to Pakistan. By helicopter, from what I heard.
5. Navy gunships blast Shah’s militia to hell. FALSE. Operation Whalers was what obliterated Shah’s force. Check out the photo at right.
5. A five year old Pashtun kid hands Marcus a knife to stab to death an enemy fighter—which conveniently comes after a minutes long struggle during a lull to get the kid to understand he needs a knife to remove some shrapnel. FALSE AS IT GETS. I mean seriously, this is some bullshit. My favorite part is when Wahlberg is finally going to the medevac helicopter and he stops—in the middle of a fucking firefight!— to kiss the kid’s head. Thanks for helping me waste that Taliban, little bro.
At this point in the film I was laughing. I could write for days on the historical inaccuracies, but my friends over at OnViolence.com have laid it out much better than I can in the next few hours. Hop over there to check it out: OnViolence.com: The Worst War Memoir Since 9/11: An Introduction to Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor Week.
What is very clear to me is the reverence that Peter Berg, Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, and everyone else seem to have for the Navy SEALs and the military as a whole. After putting us through a gut-wrenching firefight where slow-mo bullet wounds and suffering at the hands of the enemy dominate the mis-en-scene, we’re sobered up by an elegy dedicated to the 19 souls lost on June 28, 2005.
Watch the film but don’t get caught up thinking you’re actually getting a glimpse into what happened on that day. Peter Berg has taken many liberties with the truth in order to fit a narrative which could be sold to Hollywood audiences. We might as well watch Titanic for historical accuracy.
I have the utmost respect for the everyone who lost their lives that day. I don’t question the SEALs tenacity, dedication to service, nor what happened on the battlefield that day. I wasn’t there. And I don’t question that the fog of war is a very real thing that obscures the truth. I’ve seen it many times.
Danny Dietz’s memorial is 15 minutes from where I grew up. When I visit, I feel raw. Like a fresh cut, even the slightest breeze is painful. I remember the terror I felt fighting Shah’s men. I think of how much sleep I’ve lost since that week. And most of all I remember watching the captured video from Shah’s men when they ambushed the Team. There’s a moment where an enemy fighter kicks Danny’s body, shortly after he had been killed. Shah shoves the man away and glares at him coldly. That moment has always stayed with me because it showed me that even though we were enemies, even Shah had respect for the SEALs. And while the film Lone Survivor doesn’t do so well in telling the exact story, I couldn’t help but leave the theater with a sense of reverence.