Film critic calls the film, Lone Survivor, “pro-war”

Mark Wahlberg plays real-life former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell in the film Lone Survivor. (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)
Mark Wahlberg plays real-life former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell in the film Lone Survivor. (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Lone Survivor by Peter Berg was one of the most awaited movies of the year. The movie opens with documentary footage of real-life United States Navy SEALs boot camp. The documentary shows the difficult training that candidates undergo before becoming a full-fledged SEAL. Film critic Calum Marsh says the opening was intended to show audiences “how exceptional the real-life SEALs” are before introducing the characters of the movie. But strong as they are, the SEALs will find that the odds during war are not always in their favor, so the title suggest.

The movie for the critic serves more than just this purpose.

“Assembled like a high-gloss music video and slathered in Explosions in the Sky’s soaring post-rock, it plays out like an advertisement for the Marine Corps—an affectionate endorsement from Hollywood of the SEALs’ peerless brawn,” Marsh said. The film was based on the memoirs of a former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. Mark Wahlberg, who is a co-producer of Lone Survivor, plays Lutrell. Marsh claimed that the movie is, as he expected it to be, a little propagandistic.

“It’s rooted in a tradition of patriotism as old as the motion picture itself, stretching from the John Wayne vehicle The Green Berets to the recent Act of Valor,” said Marsh.  He went on to say that the aggressively nationalistic themes in the film were considered a genre protocol common among many war movies.

At first, the director Berg makes an introduction of the SEALs who will soon eventually meet a tragic fate in the battlefield in an unexpected twist. He shows the SEALs as ordinary guys despite their training to withstand the strains of war. The SEALs talk of weddings, loved ones while they laze around their quarters. They go on running races and sing songs. They enjoy their food and are fond of beer. They communicate to their wives, lovers and children through e-mails, video chats and phones.

On the other hand, the director was quick to introduce the Taliban as “villains”. The movie shows the Taliban as a noisy unruly gang that “storms into a quiet village while firing off machine guns, and while screaming unintelligibly, drags a man into the streets and lops his head off with a machete”. This accompanied by sinister music makes the director’s sentiment clear that the Taliban are the villains while the good guys are the SEALs.

“This is cartoon villainy—the realm of the black hat and the twirling moustache. Such gestures serve a straightforward dramatic purpose: They align the audience with the heroes while encouraging them to dislike the bad guys, so that when the battle finally ignites, the viewer’s sympathies have already been sorted out,” Marsh further said. 

The next sequence after the introduction involves the four SEALs caught in a dilemma of escaping an army of Taliban soldiers with very crucial intelligence. It is also the longest part that involves the SEALs fighting off to flee from the bombs and guns of the Taliban in very rugged and dangerously steep Afghan mountains.

Marsh says that the sequence intended for audiences to “feel and emotional connection to the heroes”. The director cleverly plotted the film to make audiences believe, consciously or subconsciously, that the SEALs are not actors pretending to play soldier for Hollywood’s sake.

“We need to believe, even subconsciously, that while the Americans are three-dimensional characters to whom we can relate, the seemingly endless droves of attackers who besiege them are not—they’re merely The Enemy, a faceless mass, a manifestation of evil. We want to see them shot at, eviscerated, blown to pieces,” he noted.   The Atlantic reports that this strategy is nothing new. Calum further said that because the informed viewer can distinguish fiction from reality, these films including the “most outrageously jingoistic war films” are doubtfully dangerous in any meaningful sense.

As Marsh puts it, “Nobody will be rushing off to war on account of Peter Berg.”

He considers the movie Lone Survivor a tool that costs multi-million dollars which could be used by the military to recruit and indoctrinate the citizens targeting particularly the youth and the impressionable. He claimed that films of war themes have the capacity to influence public perception and even to make subtle shifts in opinion helping to “legitimize feelings of xenophobia and American exceptionalism”. 

The film Lone Survivor made no depiction to answer the question of whether the mission of the SEAL team was justified. Marsh claimed that the director chose to ignore this as well as the merit of the war in Afghanistan. For him, the movie tries to shift the attention of audiences from these issues to the heroism of the men and their bravery. 

“The moral issues are for another day,” said Marsh.

Steven Spielberg was found quoted in Newsweek after the release of his movie, Saving Private Ryan, that “every war movie, good or bad, is an antiwar movie.”  For Marsh, what Spielberg really means “is that insofar as every war movie depicts the brutality and horror of wartime, every war movie takes an implicit stand against it—that is, to make war look real is to make war look bad, and to make a movie that makes war look bad is to make a movie that’s anti-war.”  For him, it is reasonable that the film Saving Private Ryan should give the impression that the movie is anti-war depicting Normandy during conflict where not a soul or building were safe. The mission of the Navy SEALs was also a dangerous one making the film also anti-war.

But, Marsh claimed that war films are still basically action films or “blockbuster spectacles embellished by the verve and vigor of cutting-edge special effects. They may not strictly glorify. But they almost never discourage.”

As with all the other war films, there are the heroes who are most of the time the soldiers they “often really are heroic”. The movie Lone Survivor also transforms the SEALs into “infallible supermen tragically bested”. Thus, the SEALs are to be immortalized as noble and heroic even in death. But, it was also that war that made them into heroes. The brutalities and carnage of war were, according to Marsh, were undermined.

Marsh said that the message of the film was that “War isn’t great; war makes you great. What is such a sentiment if not pro-war?”  “Of course, if Peter Berg wants to make a film-length recruitment ad, that’s his prerogative. But it’s important, then, to accept that the result is enthusiastically pro-war.  “When you make a film in which soldiers are paragons of excellence and the action they conduct is ruthless and exciting—in Berg’s world, naturally, the action is rip-roaring and amplified in slo-mo, almost pornographic in its excess—there is no other conclusion.”

This, according to Marsh, is the loop in the hole that war films only rarely manage to avoid. If done otherwise, the heroes would be humanized and not lionized. This would risk giving the impression of disrespect to those who gave their lives during the war. And doing so would make the film unappealing rather that exciting. And in the end, doing so would mean risking earning the dislike of the audience. 

Marsh also claims that there is no clear-cut way to making a thoroughly and effectively anti-war movie. Even the movies that are intended to be anti-war often fall short.

“Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his review of Saving Private Ryan, relates a story of escorting the late Samuel Fuller one day to a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. After leaving the picture, Rosenbaum asked him what he thought. He grumbled that it was just ‘another goddamned recruiting film.’ And maybe that’s all they’ll ever be,” Marsh finally said.



Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE