From its beginnings just over a century ago the unique power of cinema has been its capacity to engage audiences emotionally in a manner quite unlike any other medium. By that standard “Lone Survivor” is very likely one of the most memorable movies you will ever see.
Viewed in a Denver theatre in the early days of the film’s release one of the most striking aspects of the experience was that when the movie ended during the nearly five minutes that the extensive credits rolled down the screen there was absolute silence and nobody moved. Self-evidently the audience- like my wife and myself – were endeavoring to regain their emotional composure. Handkerchiefs were much in evidence. As reported by several reviewers similar scenes played out across the country as “Lone Survivor” with very little advance publicity shot to the top of early box office tallies much as the book of the same title soared to number 1 on the New York Times best seller list when it appeared in 2007.
This film has been compared to two other recent movies- “Act of Valor” and “Zero Dark Thirty”- which also portray the true life prowess and heroism of our military’s elite SEAL Teams, but unlike the other two which document extraordinary battlefield success (e.g. the Killing of Bin Laden), “Lone Survivor” is a tale of a mission that failed in most excruciating circumstance. Precisely because it failed it is arguably the most compelling of the three films.
The very title “Lone Survivor” telegraphs in advance to audiences that they will be watching a tale overhung with tragedy, and the story of the four main protagonists is all the more riveting because of that.
“Lone Survivor’s” accomplished Director Peter Berg attains an extra dimension not fully realized in the earlier films. He goes beyond the obvious violence of the war in Afghanistan, and captures in concise, graphic and moving fashion its morality and humanity as well.
The morality is best conveyed at the mission’s outset in the crucial dilemma faced by the four young soldiers, and their response to it which- however admirable- preordains the doom that will overtake that mission.
The humanity is best rendered in the compelling portrait of the seemingly inscrutable Afghan people, notably the stunning contrast between the blood-curdling savagery of the Taliban and the astonishing courage of Afghan villagers who rescue and protect the “Lone survivor” Marcus Luttrell- most ably portrayed by Mark Wahlberg- at incredible cost to themselves.
It is impossible to watch “Lone Survivor” or think about it afterwards without setting it in the context of the extraordinary twists and turns of a war now in its 13th year- the longest war in American history.
In that vein one looks at the superb professionalism, skill, dedication, and bravery portrayed on the screen, and contrasts it with the raw politicization that has overtaken the war in Washington.
Similarly the camaraderie, unity of purpose, and spirit of self-sacrifice displayed by Marcus Luttrell and his fellow soldiers puts to shame the all too common venal and self-serving behaviors of “higher leadership”.
It is interesting that the release of “Lone Survivor” coincided with the publication of a book that also revolves around the war in Afghanistan-Duty, the memoir of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It is quite striking that the very same pundits who went to great lengths to find fault in the movie also were quick to denigrate the book, and its author for daring to criticize those who routinely placed politics above the well-being of our soldiers.
For thousands of years men have sought to reconcile the honor and the horror that attends war. Often the truths that emerge in this age-old quest are better captured by artists than historians.
One thinks of the 19th century English poet Tennyson and his classic The Charge of the Light Brigade, which describes a battle in another star-crossed war. The poem tells us that someone in higher leadership had “blundered” but it would be ordinary soldiers who would pay the price of folly and “Into the Valley of Death rode the Six Hundred”. For them the poet renders an unforgettable epitaph: “Theirs not to Reason Why; Theirs but to Do and Die”.
Similarly in “The Bridges of Toko-Ri”- a 1955 Korean War film that like “Lone Survivor” ends with the heroic deaths of courageous young men- a senior commander portrayed by Frederic March rhetorically asks “Where do we get such men?”
There is no answer- then or now- but somehow our nation has always found such men as Marcus Luttrell and his comrades. Should there ever come a day when we can’t we shall be a very different country and a lesser one as well.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events.