The movie Lone Survivor didn’t get any major Oscar nominations. If it had, perhaps it should have been nominated for Most Unlikely Politically Incorrect Picture of the Year.
It’s based on the true story of a mission in Afghanistan that goes disastrously wrong. A four-man team of Navy SEALs hunting down a Taliban commander is stumbled upon by a couple of goatherds in the mountains of Kunar Province. Deciding to let them go, even though it will compromise them, the SEALs are subsequently outnumbered in a fierce firefight. Three of them are killed, and a Chinook helicopter attempting to relieve them is downed, killing another 16 Americans. The only survivor is a SEAL named Marcus Luttrell, who is played by Mark Wahlberg and who wrote a book about the mission.
None of this is remotely controversial material. How could anyone be offended by a movie about a Navy SEAL fighting with everything he has to save himself and his buddies and improbably surviving an epic ordeal? Yet the brickbats have been flying from the snotty left: Propaganda. Simplistic. Racist. Lone Survivor has run up against part of the culture that can’t stand the most straightforward depictions of American heroism and the warrior ethic.
A reviewer in The Atlantic worries that movies like Lone Survivor “resemble multi-million dollar recruitment videos — tools of military indoctrination geared toward the young and the impressionable.” There is no doubt that the SEALs are portrayed as noble and heroic, for good reason: They were. But if this is a recruitment film, it isn’t of the “sign up and see the world” variety. The implicit message is that if you become a SEAL, you, too, can be faced with excruciating life-and-death decisions in hostile territory. You, too, can fight a battle while falling down a mountain. You, too, can get shot up and killed.
A writer in Salon complains that the targeted Taliban commander “is presented as a terrible guy,” and we don’t learn enough about the Taliban fighters attacking the SEALs, or as he calls them, “some dudes from an Afghan village about whom we know nothing.” Yes, if only we knew whether or not the Taliban commander, Ahmad Shah, had a troubled upbringing, that would change everything. Perhaps the Taliban version of the movie could present fuller, more sympathetic portraits of its fighters seeking to plunge their country into renewed medieval darkness — if, that is, the Taliban believed in movies.
In perhaps the most preposterous critique, a critic in LA Weekly says the attitude of the SEALs in the movie is “Brown people bad, American people good.” What a stupid smear. The proximate cause of the impossible situation of the SEALs is precisely their decision to let a few unarmed “brown people” go. Besides, not all “brown people” in the film are bad. Some of them are awe-inspiringly merciful and brave. Of course, the main thrust of the Taliban’s war is against other “brown people,” whom they intimidate and kill in their quest to dominate.
It is certainly true that Lone Survivor is not Fellini. What it lacks in dialogue, it makes up for in explosions and gunfire. It is about as subtle as an RPG round. But it captures something important: the otherworldly fearlessness and grit of our best fighters. If this story — the inevitable cinematic embellishments aside — weren’t true, you would be hard-pressed to believe it. These are extraordinary men, and the tale of their valor deserves to be told over and over again, whatever you think of the Afghan War or the broader War on Terror.
Several years ago, Hollywood made a bunch of tendentious anti–Iraq War movies, all of which flopped. Lone Survivor is one of the few recent war movies that have been a success at the box office. It’s not hard to understand why. It takes a perverse hostility to all that is great and good in the U.S. military not to find it gripping and inspiring.