Saturday, January 11, 2014

Lone Survivor [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J.P. McCarthy) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (S. Boone) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Lone Survivor [2013] (directed and screenplay by Peter Berg, based on the memoir by Marcus Luttrell [IMDb] and Patrick Robinson) is about the skill, dedication and heroism of U.S. Navy SEALS fighting in the post-9/11 U.S. War on Terror, often, obviously, in the mountains of Afghanistan where this story is set.

From this description, it should be clear that the film carries with it a clear, basically, pro-American, pro-American-military point of view.  To many American readers here, this may seem like a somewhat annoying restatement of the obvious: Of course this is (and should be) a pro-American, pro-American military film, for it to be anything else would disingenuous or unpatriotic or both.  Yet though I am an American, I belong to a world-wide Catholic Religious Order (the Friar Servants of Mary), I've been on various national and international committees for my Religious Order over the years (including Justice and Peace), and a significant portion of my blog's Readership comes from overseas.   I know well that non-American Readers of my Blog (and non-American Viewers of the Film) would approach this same film with a great deal of skepticism wondering: Is this just "another American propaganda piece?"  I WOULD TELL READERS HERE, BOTH AMERICAN AND NON, THAT IN A CERTAIN SENSE IT (NECESSARILY) IS (an American propaganda piece) BUT (!) IT IS A RATHER GOOD / THOUGHT PROVOKING ONE WORTHY OF THE CRITICAL ATTENTION OF EVERYONE (of both Americans and non).

Why would I write that this film deserves "the critical attention of everyone?"  I write this because the film does deal with both moral questions AND portrays, I believe QUITE WELL certain fundamental characteristics of "American military doctrine" THAT ARE WORTHY OF REFLECTION UPON and COMPARISON WITH fundamental characteristics of the military doctrine of both "other lands" and "other times."

I write this because we all know well that ANY COUNTRY could produce wonderful, compelling "pro-Our Folks" military pieces.  American director Quentin Tarantino did the ENTIRE WORLD an enormous favor by including in his fascinatingly deconstructive "WW II" film Inglourious Basterds [2009] the subplot of the German propaganda machine seeking to produce an American style but PRO-NAZI GERMANY World War II film about "a brave lone Nazi sharpshooter in a bell tower keeping 300 American soldiers at bay" in some random town in Italy (One scene even shows the "brave Nazi sharpshooter" holed up in said "bell tower" pulling-out his pocket knife to carve the crisscrossing lines of the Nazi Swastika into the wood of the floor next to him, to the wild applause of the pro-Nazi German audience watching the film's premiere) the point being precisely that ANY COUNTRY can make its people look Good and "the Enemy" look Bad.   

That said, even propaganda films reveal more than "Our guys are Good and Their guys are Bad" and that is what I believe makes THE CURRENT FILM fascinating.

For the setup of the current film is conventional enough: A team of four über-fit, highly trained U.S. Navy Seals -- Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch), Danny Deitz (played by Emile Hirsch) and Matt 'Axe' Axelson (played by Ben Foster) -- are inserted on a "recon" mission into the mountains to Afghanistan to positively I.D. a Taliban leader by the name of Shah (played by Yousuf Azami) reported to be operating out of a small Afghan village in said mountains.  Once positively said Taliban leader, the rest of U.S. Navy Seal Team would be brought in by helicopter to take him and the rest of his company out.

All goes more-or-less according to the set plan until ... the four Navy SEALS perched in the mountains overlooking the village are happened upon by a number of goat herders -- two boys and an old man.  The Navy SEALS quickly overcome/bind the three Afghani goat-herders, but the question becomes, what now?   The team radios back to HQ for instructions, but alas, radio reception even today isn't ideal in the mountains _anywhere_ let alone in Afghanistan.   Without instructions (or the hope of immediate backup ...) the team has to decide what to do on their own.  The team's leader identifies three options: (1) let them go, which will almost certainly compromise their positions and virtually guarantee a firefight coming from directions/positions that they only guess (the Taliban is an army after all, with its own communications networks, and their garrisons aren't simply "sitting in town" waiting to be attacked by Americans ..., (2) leave the three tied-up, with the Navy SEALS bugging-out to another position (with presumably better possibility for communications), (3) "terminate the compromise" -- kill the three goat herders.

ONE COULD IMAGINE AN ELITE SQUAD OF ANY NATION'S ARMY FACING A SIMILAR SET OF OPTIONS.  What distinguishes THIS ELITE SQUAD is that it is _American_ and thus two characteristic concerns/values pervade: (1) The four have been trained according to post-WW II U.S. Military Doctrine to value their team.  One of the Navy SEALS says it bluntly: "I don't care about them (the three Afghani prisoners), I don't care about the higher-ups, I care about you, you and you (the team)" and (2) professionalism / a learned sense of accountability.  Another of the Navy SEALS points out: "If we kill these three Afghanis, or leave them here to freeze/die, it will be found out (someone's going to go looking for them and those goats are going to remain in the area), it will make CNN and we'll end up in Leavenworth."

I DON'T THINK A RUSSIAN SQUAD to say nothing of a NAZI "ELITE" WAFFEN-SS SQUAD would think that way.  In both cases, they would be "fighting for country" rather than "team" and in both cases, there would be no "CNN" to worry about, let alone "accountability back at the base."

Now I am no "pie in the sky, we do no wrong" naive American patriot.  Indeed, I reviewed (and gave high marks) to a documentary film produced by liberal/left leaning Nation Magazine national security correspondent Jeremy Skahill named Dirty Wars [2013] which chronicled various time when U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) weren't nearly so careful and killed all kinds of civilians both in Afghanistan and in Yemen.

But this is exactly a good part of my point: In the United States these stories DO COME OUT.  Violating "rules of engagement," blithely killing civilians, does actually carry risk in the U.S. military (and other western armies).  It doesn't elsewhere.  And please, if I'm wrong, show it to me.  Please offer me an example or two when members of Russian Special Forces units have been held accountable for "accidental killings" in the Caucuses, or even members of Indian Special Forces Units for similar actions in The Kashmir?

Jeremy Skahill's documentary Dirty Wars [2013] did show _clearly_ that U.S. Special Forces have killed innocents in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the War on Terror.  Still, I do get the sense that U.S. special forces units DO TRY TO BE CAREFUL and do understand that there are consequences (including possible jail time) for unprofessionalism.

Anyway, the Navy SEAL team in question in this story lets the three Afghani goat herders go free and the rest of the film follows.  The title of the film itself is a spoiler, suggesting more or less obviously that only one of the four will make it out.  I'll add a SECOND SPOILER -- the one who got out alive, made it in good part because of assistance from Afghani peasants (other "goat herders ...") who ALSO "happened upon him" when he was wounded ...

Great story and honestly one giving one much to think about.

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