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Box Office Smash 'Lone Survivor' Sugarcoats Soldiers' Traumas

Film critics and commentators have ignored what veterans and their families are saying about the movie depicting a Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan.
 
 
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The Navy SEALs who participated in Operation Red Wings, a mission depicted in the movie Lone Survivor.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

“Most people are tired of hearing about the war, but they're not war-weary because they haven't experienced it," says Karen Meredith, a Gold Star mother who was told her son, Ken Ballard, was killed by insurgents on Memorial Day 2004. Her son was number 818 killed in Iraq. (The term “Gold Star” refers to the lapel pin the military gives to family members who have lost a loved one in war.)

Meredith agreed to speak with me about Lone Survivor, a new movie she saw the first day it hit theaters in her home town of Mountain View, Calif.

“I wanted to make sure they didn't glorify [war]," she says. "I don't think they did at all.”

The film tracks the tragedy of Operation Red Wings, a covert mission on the mountain Sawtalo Sar in northwest Afghanistan in 2005. A team of four Navy SEALs deployed for a surveillance and reconnaissance mission are ambushed by their Taliban target, Ahmad Shah, and his men. Three members of the SEAL team—Mike Murphy, Matt Axelson and Danny Dietz—were killed, and a helicopter with eight more SEALs and eight special-ops aviators was shot down by an RPG, killing all on board. For his actions, Lt. Mike Murphy posthumously received the Medal of Honor. Marcus Luttrell was the only survivor.

Lone Survivor has been praised by conservatives and panned by some liberal commentators. In recent days, the debate over the film's political slant has gotten ugly. Director Peter Berg ( Friday Night Lights) claims his new movie has “no politics” and represents "a chance for audiences to express their patriotism in a way that doesn't feel political."

The reaction to the film came to a head earlier this week when LA Weekly film reviewer Amy Nicholson called Lone Survivor a “ jingoistic snuff film.” Glenn Beck promptly responded by offering to fly Nicholson to his studio to level the same claim at Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL who co-wrote the memoir the film is based on. Beck said, “If you have the balls to say what you just said to Marcus Luttrell and back it up, go for it.” An angry mob soon formed on Twitter, and the rest is history.

While the movie has predictably stirred partisan controversy, much of it due to excruciating levels of graphic violence and paradoxically celebrated realism, many commentators have ignored the most important angle: what veterans and their families are saying about the film.

Jovanni Reyes, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), reacted to the movie in a blog post: “I don't find a Band of Brothers bonding in the battlefield, while killing the 'other', the proverbial 'bad guy,' sexy at all.”

Jacob George, founder of the veterans' art collective A Ride Til The End, said Lone Survivor “demonstrated the complex nature of that specific battle/operation in a way that is palatable to its target audience, middle America. It wasn't designed to illustrate the complexity of the Afghanistan conflict, just tell a Hollywood version of a story.”

In one controversial scene from the film, the four SEALs face a “soft compromise” when they encounter a herd of goats and three goatherds, civilians who uncover their position on the mountain. Faced with a moral dilemma that proves to be the fulcrum of the film, the SEALs must decide how to handle the situation. The action unfolds from there. Some viewers say this kind of human politics overshadows the bigger picture, the architecture of the war.

“I'm more interested in learning what brought these men to the killing fields,” writes Jovanni Reyes. “The political dimension. The background story. Context. What was the political motivation of the old men who send these young men to slaughter and die. And who profits from all the carnage. That's what's more impressing to me.”

 
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