On June 27th in 2005, in the Pech District of Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, near the border of Pakistan’s “tribal regions,” the United States Army and Navy conducted a joint operation against a local militia leader named named Ahmed Shah. The Taliban had essentially been defeated, and the “coalition” — the American occupation force — was now getting involved in nation buiding. Shah, who was closely associated with the anti-American warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was considered a threat to disrupt the Afghan National Parliamentary Elections scheduled to take place on September 18, 2005.
Operation Red Wings, as the mission was dubbed, ended in disaster after four elite Navy Seals, Michael P. Murphy, Danny P. Dietz, Matthew G. Axelson, and Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell — all of whom had been lowered by helicopter near Shah’s compound as an advance reconnaissance team — were discovered by local goatherds and ambushed by Shah’s militia. The Chinook helicopter sent to extract them was hit by an RPG. Murphy, Dietz, and Axelson were killed. Marcus Luttrell was badly wounded, but managed to make it to a Pashtun village hostile to Shah, where he was able to hide until he was picked up by U.S. forces from a nearby base in Asadabad.
“Lone Survivor,” directed by Peter Berg of “Friday Night Lights,” and based on Marcus Luttrell’s book, ghost written by Patrick Robinson, and also called “Lone Survivor,” is a semi-documentary, semi-fictional retelling of Operation Red Wings. There has been a good deal of critcism of the accuracy of both the book and the film, including by Lieutenant Murphy’s father. Luttrell is widely believed to have overestimated the number of Ahmed Shah’s men in involved in the ambush. More importantly, Ahmed Shah never ordered an attack on the village where Luttrell was hiding. It would have been politically foolish. The rescue of Marcus Luttrell, like the rescue of Jessica Lynch, did not involve a a firefight.
The gun fight at the end of Lone Survivor involves different issues from the media’s fictionalized account of Jessica Lynch’s rescue. Whether or not Lone Survivor is 100% accurate is less important than whether or not it works on its own terms. It’s still a Hollywood movie, after all. I think it does. I think it’s well-made, effective, and, for at least the first hour, entertaining right-wing propaganda. What’s more, Lone Survivor has been a hit in conservative America, having already grossed over 80 million dollars — it cost 40 million to make — even though it’s been in wide theatrical release for less than a month. It has gained powerful supporters among conservative intellectuals. Glenn Beck was so outraged by a harsh review by Amy Nicholson in the LA Weekly — she called Lone Survivor racist, jingoistic snuff porn — that he offered to pay her travel expenses in order that she could “read the review to Marcus Luttrell’s face.”
“Amy,” Beck said. “Marcus is a Texan. That’s different than an American … He listens and obeys his mother. He treats his wife and all women with respect … You’ll walk into the studio and Marcus will know who you are, and Marcus will hold the door open for you even though … that will drive you out of your mind. He will treat you with respect.”
Most big budget Hollywood films aim for the widest possible demographic. “The Hunger Games,” for example, can appeal to people on the left. It’s the dramatization of a revolution of the poor against the rich. But it can also appeal to people on the right. Hunger Games depicts the poor as heterosexual “real Americans” while the rich, the citizens of the Panen capitol, look like decadent homosexuals. Medium budget films, on the other hand, sometimes go after a more limited audience. I doubt, for example, that David O. Russell expects conservatives to buy tickets for American Hustle. An unabashed apology for American imperialism and militarism, Lone Survivor is one of those rare films that goes after a limited demographic and goes after it hard. While I don’t agree with Amy Nicholson that it’s necessarily racist (more on that later), I do think it’s “jingoistic snuff porn.” In fact, I agree with Steven Boone at Roger Ebert’s website that Lone Survivor is a lot like another classic of Hollywood “snuff porn,” one that not only became a hit in “Red America,” but a political dividing line, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Lone Survivor is The Passion of the Navy Seals, a drama about 3 men who died for the sins of liberal America, and one who rose from the dead. Indeed, while the real Marcus Luttrell was gravely wounded during Operation Red Wings and spent five hellish days waiting to be rescued, he was never in any fear for his life. Lone Survivor, on the other hand, begins with a dead man, the fictionalized Marcus Luttrell lying on a cot inside a medical tent, dead. He’s flat lined. As his doctors frantically try to resuscitate him, we flash back 3 days to Bagram Air Force Base (no mention of the fact that it was used for torture). There we find ourselves among a likeable group of fratboys. Matthew Axelson chats with his wife online. He wants to buy her an Arabian horse but doesn’t think he will have the money. Luttrell actually wears a fraternity shirt. A younger Navy Seal, played by Alexander Ludwig, is put through a hazing ritual.
A few hours after being lowered from a helicopter near Ahmed Shah’s compound, the four Seals are put to a test. Some local goat herds discover their position. There’s a good chance they’re loyal to Shah. Murphy, Dietz, Axelson, and Luttrell have two options. They can kill the goat herds, thus violating the “rules of engagement,” and, quite possibly, go to jail as war criminals. Or they can let the goatherds go, call off the mission, and try to escape a best they can. They decide on the latter. The main criticism that Michael P. Murphy’s father had of the book Lone Survivor, interestingly enough, is that his son would have never even allowed a debate on killing civilians, let alone a vote. He would have followed the rules of engagement to a fault.
“[Killing civilians] was the total antithesis of every bone in his body,” Lt. Murphy’s father, Dan, told the Daily News in 2007. In Luttrell’s book, Murphy’s main argument for letting them go was to prevent the U.S. liberal media from attacking them and seeing that they were charged with murder.
In any event, the goatherds are loyal to Shah, and the four Seals are ambushed. Over the next hour, they go through their passion play. As waves and waves of Taliban militia swarm their position, they’re shot up, beaten up. They fall down a steep ridge and crash repeatedly onto hard ground, their bodies and faces mangled by the sharp edges of rocks. Like Jim Caviezel’s Jesus, Murphy, Dietz, Axelson, and Luttrell seem to have an almost superhuman ability to absorb punishment. Lone Survivor is a long, extended meditation on the destruction of the bodies of powerfully built young men. They are, in effect, crucified because of the rules of engagement against killing civilians. Even worse, the Chinook helicopter that flies in without Apache support to rescue Luttrell is hit by an RPG, and crashes against the side of the mountain in spectacular fashion, killing 15 more soldiers and Navy Seals.
Indeed, if Murphy, Dietz, Axelson, and Luttrell have any fault at all, it’s that they call in to ask for orders to kill the goat herders, and then, not able to contact their commanding officer, let them go. Murphy should have have taken that responsiblity on himself. He should have died for his buddies, not the sins of liberal, politically correct America. In other words, Lone Survivor is an apology for war crimes that are never committed. “Let the troops win,” Berg says. “Stop tying one hand behind their backs. Look at how these four, muscular young American Christs are dying for your sins.”
But then a strange thing happens, which is why, unlike Amy Nicholson, I don’t think the film is necessarily racist. We start to root for the Taliban. Sure there are some “good” Afghans who rescue Luttrell, but it doesn’t matter. As Murphy, Dietz, Axelson, and Luttrell die, as their four meaty Anglo Saxon bodies get pounded into meat, we start to root for Ahmed Shah’s militia. I’ve seen Berg accused of setting Lone Survivor up as a First Person shooter, and, indeed, that may have been his intention, but it’s not the effect, as least for me. On the contrary, as the movie bogs down in its long passion play, the Afghans, the Taliban, Shah’s militia, whatever you want to call them, are transformed into something that resembles an avenging ghost army. They move gracefully. They aren’t weighted down by heavy body armor. They carry simple, elegant, AK-47s and not pimped out American assault rifles. They are cold, ruthless, relentless. But they are cleansing their country of the American invader. If we want Marcus Luttrell to escape, it’s only because, like American imperialism, he’s a bloody mess who doesn’t belong there.