Monday, August 25, 2014

Lone Survivor and "Lone Survivor": review

I've never tried simultaneously reviewing both a movie and the book it's based on, so here goes nothing. Things could get a little confusing. Per my normal stylistic conventions, I'll use italics for the book Lone Survivor and quotation marks for the movie "Lone Survivor."*

"Lone Survivor," the movie

The movie "Lone Survivor" was directed by hit-and-miss action director Peter Berg (whom you may remember acting in TV shows and movies like "Chicago Hope," "Cop Land" with Sylvester Stallone, and "Smokin' Aces"). It's one of his better directorial efforts, perhaps because Berg was crafting a hagiography, of sorts, for the fallen Navy SEALs whose lives he chronicles. "Lone Survivor" stars Mark Wahlberg as SEAL Team 10 sniper Marcus Luttrell, the titular "lone survivor," with Taylor Kitsch as team leader Michael "Mikey" Murphy, Emile Hirsch as comm specialist Danny Dietz, and Ben Foster rounding out the team as Matthew "Axe" Axelson, the team's other sniper.

The basic story revolves around an operation gone bad: Operation Red Wings,** which took place in the badlands of the Afghan portion of the Hindu Kush, a forbidding mountain range stretching 500 miles from Afghanistan to Pakistan, just south of the Himalayas. The mission objective was to capture and bring to justice a particular insurgent leader, named Ahmad Shah*** in the movie (but given a pseudonym, Ben Sharmak, in the book), who was responsible for the deaths of at least twenty US Marines and numerous local innocents. A four-man team would be dropped in the mountains to reconnoiter, and the mission would proceed from there.

In a morbid comedy of errors, the mission goes bad from the start. Communication problems prevent the team from regularly updating their position, and worst of all, the team is accidentally discovered by a small cluster of Afghan tribesmen. The tribesmen are captured, and a few crucial minutes of the film are spent as the SEAL team members debate the fate of their captives. Conscience eventually wins out: Luttrell's fear of what the American media will do if the SEALs should kill these men in cold blood leads to the release of the prisoners, at least one of whom immediately speeds back downhill to warn the nearby village of the Americans' presence. The Americans can do little but try to seek higher ground in the hopes of using their faulty comm equipment to request extraction.

The fighters who surround the team prove to be frighteningly quick at navigating the terrain, and sooner than expected, the SEALs find themselves in an intense firefight. Superior training and excellent marksmanship help the SEALs bring down dozens of insurgents, but dozens more come to replace them, and the SEALs don't leave the conflict unscathed. Having failed to reach higher ground, the Americans have little choice but to make a rapid descent—several times. Berg's sound editing at this point isn't subtle: we hear every crunch and crack as the SEALs literally tumble down the mountainside in hopes of reaching a more tenable position.

One by one, the SEALs are whittled down despite their ferocity and bravery. Soon enough, only Luttrell is left (this isn't exactly a spoiler: the movie begins by showing us that Luttrell is the only survivor), and he does what he can to hide from the insurgents. Wounded and barely able to move, the soldier is found by some Pashtun tribesmen who have no loyalty to the Taliban and who practice the ancient custom of pashtunwali (spelled "Pashtunwalai" in the book), a strict code of conduct that commands the welcome of any guest and enjoins the host to protect his guest with his life from any enemy. The apparent head of this group of tribesmen is Muhammad Gulab who, despite not knowing much English, manages to communicate his benevolent intentions to Luttrell; the latter tentatively accepts his care. Ultimately, Luttrell is rescued after the tribal elder makes the long trek to the nearest American base, bringing with him a note written by Luttrell. The Americans arrive at the village where Luttrell is being held, just in time to save their comrade from a Taliban attack, as the Taliban had been hoping to take Luttrell by force from his Afghan protectors, who had refused to hand the American over because of the pashtunwali code. Luttrell is taken, barely alive, back to Bagram.

"Lone Survivor" is a simple story, simply told. I sometimes wished, while watching the movie, that the story had been placed in more capable hands, but Peter Berg does a decent job as director. As I soon found out from reading Luttrell's book, the movie version of events diverged significantly from reality, but the movie got the most important points right: (1) the SEALs were accidentally discovered; (2) the decision to release the Afghan captives had to do with fear of American media reaction; (3) the SEALs were surrounded before they had a chance to reach higher ground; (4) an attempted extraction of the SEALs resulted in the shooting-down of a US helicopter; (5) a gravely wounded Luttrell was taken in by local Pashtun tribesmen.

The movie sometimes veered into action-movie caricature, and at one moment even played a serious scene for its comedic value. I found this off-putting and inappropriate, but in the end, the lapse in tonal consistency wasn't a deal-breaker for me. Those critiques aside, the movie kept up the intensity and gave us a good idea of what a serious firefight in the mountains would look like. Special praise should go to Ben Foster as Axe; his soulful face spoke volumes, even when he had to play scenes with one eye closed because of injury. (Axe's death is, in my opinion, the most tragic of the lot.) CGI effects were kept, thankfully, to a minimum, which made the action believable. In all, I felt tired after watching "Lone Survivor," but to me, it wasn't as intense of an experience as was "Platoon." Your own mileage may vary.

Lone Survivor, the book

Let me say from the outset that Marcus Luttrell isn't the most articulate writer. He actually co-wrote Lone Survivor with the help of military-fiction writer Patrick Robinson, who could have done more to smooth out the many kinks in Luttrell's prose. So let's just get that critique out of the way and be charitable to Luttrell who, despite lacking a writerly voice, had a story to tell and who felt he had to do his part to honor his fallen comrades. I salute him in that regard. He carried out his personal mission to the best of his ability—which is actually one of the central points he makes about what it means to be a US Navy SEAL: everything you do in life, you do to the very best of your ability.

Luttrell's story actually fulfills several purposes. First, Luttrell is at pains to explain the source of SEAL pride, which is the direct result of the grueling training that all SEALs must go through. The SEALs enroll the best of the best, then they whittle those numbers down by about two-thirds. The remaining men who make it through SEAL training have been annealed by trials known only to a very elite group of people in the entire world.

Second, Luttrell—perhaps in spite of himself—shows how that pride changed and deepened when it was brought up against the harsh reality of fighting mountain insurgents who were not confused and incompetent. Luttrell, in his book, expresses frank astonishment at the native fighters' ability to move as quickly as they do, and to adapt to American military tactics in a swift and sure manner.

Third, Luttrell wishes to express thanks not only to his fallen teammates, but to the huge contingent in Texas, composed of relatives and friends, who held vigil when news of the failed Operation Redwing first got out. The Luttrell ranch was besieged by a friendly crowd of over three hundred people—like the Spartans at Thermopylae—who camped out and formed, for a brief while, a close-knit little community of faith and hope as they all waited for news of Marcus's safe return from the mission. "A SEAL isn't dead until you see the body," was the constant refrain of SEALs who stayed at the ranch, all in an effort to comfort Marcus's mother. Luttrell also has a twin brother, and he writes that his twin firmly stated that he was "in contact" with Marcus, so he couldn't be dead.

Fourth, Luttrell writes, with tenderness and respect, about the Pashtun tribespeople who took him in. He admits he understood little to nothing about Pashtunwalai, the code of honor, until he was returned to Bagram and had a chance to speak with some experts who understood regional customs and lore.

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, Luttrell rails against "the liberals" and "the liberal media," who he felt had tied, and still do tie, the hands of soldiers who simply want to carry out their government's policy without unreasonable constraint. It's obvious that Luttrell feels guilt for his comrades' deaths since he played such an important part in deciding to let the captured tribesmen go. He just as obviously chafes against the military's ROE, rules of engagement, which Luttrell feels have been crafted in part as a response to fear about public reaction to the inherent and unavoidable horrors and injustices of war (see my earlier post).

Much of Lone Survivor, then, is devoted to a detailed explanation of SEAL training, after which the story switches back and forth between the lonely fight in the Afghan mountains and the growing vigil in Texas. Because I had seen the movie first, the differing details in the book often made me think, "Hey—the movie wasn't like this!" Of course, the book came first. Most striking, to me, was that the movie and the book have very different treatments of how Luttrell's comrades die. In the movie, Murphy, Axe, and Danny all die alone, making it impossible for Luttrell to have witnessed their deaths. In the book, though, Luttrell is there, tragically, for the death of each of his teammates. It's enough to make me wonder how differently the movie would have played out had it been more faithful to the book.

Luttrell sustained severe injuries during that firefight in the mountains, including damage to several vertebrae. He never fully recovered from the physical trauma—nor, he admits, from the psychological trauma of witnessing his friends' and comrades' deaths. In the book, he confesses to having recurring nightmares. But he continues to participate in SEAL operations.

I mentioned earlier that Luttrell's pride changed and deepened once he'd had this vicious dose of reality. By the end of Lone Survivor, we see that he's still proud to be a Navy SEAL, but one also gets the impression that he has gained a far greater respect for the enemy who, despite lacking his training, showed grim determination and was capable of amazing physical feats. In a sense, then, Luttrell the narrator has gone through his own character arc. His sense of martial pride went from something blind and callow to something tempered by experience.

If you're a stickler for articulate prose, you might not enjoy Lone Survivor. It really could stand several rounds of serious editing for style and tone. But I think the book is organized well, and I think Luttrell was right to spend as much time as he did showing us why SEALs are the proud group of fighters that they are. I also think Luttrell's sense of duty to the dead comes through clearly, which is one reason why I had trouble putting the book down. So despite my reservations on a stylistic, tonal level, I recommend Lone Survivor as one man's tribute to the others who were there to support him: his fallen teammates, the US military, his family and friends in Texas, and those tough Pashtun tribesmen with their strict code of honor.

*I'm fully aware that movie titles are better italicized—the normal rule is that you italicize the titles of self-complete works and use quotes for parts (chapters, etc.) of those works—but a very strong case can be made, based on multiple journalistic style sheets, that movie titles can legitimately be enclosed in quotation marks, as I've long done on this blog. I do occasionally resort to italics for movie titles, but when I do so, it's generally in the interest of clarity (e.g., when a movie title is inside a larger quote), as I recently did in my Korean joke post.

**Was this "Operation Redwing" or "Operation Red Wings"? Wikipedia claims the latter term is the correct one, but Luttrell uses "Redwing" throughout his book.

***This is his actual name. In the book, Luttrell uses a pseudonym. Wikipedia notes that Shah was not actually Taliban himself, but was a Taliban sympathizer; his men might best be described as anti-coalition insurgents. He was eventually killed by Pakistani police at a checkpoint. Luttrell focuses much of his narrative on the doings of the Taliban, which potentially leaves the reader with the impression that he and his team actually fought Taliban forces. I'm not sure that's the case, even though Luttrell describes Ben Sharmak (Ahmad Shah) as "a leader of a serious Taliban force."



John from Daejeon said...

Dsmn, I thought I mentioned going to Daiso for your cheap everyday needs way back when you first got to South Korea. Anyway, you left off Peter Berg's best work, the TV series, "Friday Night Lights," where Taylor Kitsch did some truly great acting. I never would have thought that it would become one of my favorite TV programs of all time.

Before I go, I've been reading your twitter feed for some time. It's really quite good, but you might want to watch "How Media Lies." It is very mind-opening about the Israeli lobbying of, and now control of, the American media concerning all things Israel.

I am very anti-Hamas, but Israel isn't much better in it's treatment of the everyday Palestinians in the Israeli-Occupied Palestinian territory that they are usurping right under American noses (and with our money). Watching this won't change your mind about the evil of Hamas, but it may open them to some pretty evil Israeli war crimes and illegal occupation. It's amazing that the American public has been so thoroughly brainwashed into forgetting this ongoing occupation and is clueless that we have been subsidizing this occupation with billions of military aid every year. It seems that the Palestinians have a pretty good reason to feel the way they do about both Israel and the supposed "peace" seeking, yet military spending, U.S.

Can you imagine Mexico occupying the U.S. and then offering a shitty farcical peace treaty similar to the one Israel tried to screw Arafat/the Palestinians over with?

Well, good luck with the new school and school year. Reading your lack of autonomy posting helped keep me from going down that ludicrous South Korean University path again. Rewarding failure with passing grades is just something I cannot do.

Kevin Kim said...

"[Damn], I thought I mentioned going to Daiso for your cheap everyday needs way back when you first got to South Korea."

When I first got to South Korea in 1986? No. Last year? You probably did mention Daiso, but many of the old hands in Hayang also mentioned it. Can't say who beat whom to the punch—you or them.

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks for the well-wishes, and yes, rewarding failure sucks. For what it's worth, I wasn't the one who changed the Chinese students' grades. That was done without any collusion or acquiescence on my part; I refused to do it myself and made my disgruntlement known to the higher-ups.

PS: I'll pick Israel over Hamas any day. I'm not comfortable with Israel's occupation, either, but the current reality is what it is, and until both sides embrace some good old Buddhist non-attachment, nothing's going to change.