Lone Survivor, the Film that Divided America?

Lone Survivor still: Ben Foster as Matt “Axe” Axelson (left), Emile Hirsch as Danny Dietz (middle) and Mark Wahlberg as the movie’s central character, Marcus Luttrell.
Lone Survivor still: Ben Foster as Matt “Axe” Axelson (left), Emile Hirsch as Danny Dietz (middle) and Mark Wahlberg as the movie’s central character, Marcus Luttrell.

Lone Survivor, the reality-based movie about a Navy SEAL mission which went awry,premiered in US cinemas recently going headlong against The Wolf of Wall Street, another true-to-life story centered on greed. The two films’ fight went on to become more than just numbers in the box-office.

Like many earlier films with war as their central theme, The Lone Survivor went under fire because of its elements of blood, violence and of bullets flying all around. This action-packed war film, an account of one soldier who survived a botched Navy SEALs mission in an Afghan mountain in 2005, grossed $93.2 million on its first two weeks in the movie market and climbed its way into America’s box-office hit list shattering expectations about it on its way.

The War Films Debate

Hollywood movies centered on the US military had never failed to bring about very exaggerated reviews from film critics whatever side of the political spectrum they’re on and Lone Survivor – the story of Marcus Luttrell and his dangerous tale of survival after his team encountered a deadly skirmish with Taliban – was no exemption except that the particular word fight this movie caused flew off the handle.

For one, LA Weekly critic Amy Nicholson wrote about how the Lone Survivor was a “A jingoistic snuff film” and added, with a sense of dread, how the film honored death in a sinister way that was near to being pornographic. As an answer to Nicholson’s very negative review, radio-talk expert Glenn Beck called her a “vile, repugnant and ignorant liar” and challenged her further by daring her, that is if “she had the balls”, to go to his studio in Dallas and read her piece right on Luttrell’s face; Beck even offered to buy her a first-class plane ticket if she could really do the challenge.

The Peter Berg Signature

Lone Survivor is based on the book Luttrell wrote about Operation Red Wings published in 2007; the said operation was launched in an attempt to take out Ahmad Shah, a primary Taliban leader, but it went askew terribly after the four soldiers doing the recon were ambushed by the Shah’s men.

The film’s effusive tone was so typical of a Peter Berg film; after all, his 2007 action movie set in Saudi, The Kingdom, had the same “hoo-rah” element as this recent release. That 2007 Berg film also paved the way as to why the Lone Survivor came into fruition – the movie simply impressed Luttrell. However, Universal did not give Berg the go signal for the movie until after he made Battleship which was released in 2012. This alien-versus-human thriller is perhaps the most military hardware jam-packed movie in all of Hollywood’s history even more than Top Gun.

However, the Lone Survivor ticked industry analysts not just because it’s a military movie but also because of the red state/blue state divide that resulted upon its release.

Lone Survivor, Wolf of Wall Street and American Division

Lone Survivor and Wolf of Wall Street
Lone Survivor and Wolf of Wall Street

Berg and Luttrell’s movie collaboration with Mark Wahlberg playing the lead role played off headlong with Martin Scorcese’s creation of decadent want for more, The Wolf of Wall Street which had Leonardo Dicaprio as the central character. Both movies did not just fought for box-office dominance; both also top the list of America’s most controversial movies this year. More than that, these two films chiseled their own borders across the country like two battling presidential candidates on election.

Lone Survivor’s cinema successes centered on the heartland – in Texas, Utah, Colorado, Georgia, Nevada and Virginia as well as military communities like San Diego. The Wolf of Wall Street, on the other hand, holds domination on the liberal east and west as well as Canada. The Hollywood Reporter also pointed out in its report that of the top 20 movie theaters which showed Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie on the week the Lone Survivor was released, not one was located in the middle states.

The War Film Propaganda

As for the critics of Lone Survivor, Glenn Beck did not draw his on milksop comparisons between the film’s approach and how it is aesthetically or on directly attacking the virtues held by  the main character. Amy Nicholson, on her part, put up a fight, albeit a little excessively, about the movie teaching on “American people are good while brown people are bad”.

“We’re meant to cheer, not that anyone in my theater did. But there will be audiences who do, and I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable with what they’re cheering for. This is death. Look at death,” she added.

Nicholson wasn’t the only negative critic put under fire saying that Lone Survivor purposed as a military propaganda and that it is pro-war. Toronto-based Calum Marsh was also attacked for his opinion piece ran by The Atlantic. In it, he offered a contextual examination on the movie and its representation of war starting with the boot camp mishmash that opened it.

“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,” he wrote.

FOX News put up a segment, actually the first of several, about Marsh’s review which Donna Axelson, mother of one of the SEALs who died in that botched mission showed in the Lone Survivor, took issue on. However, Marsh did not know his piece had been featured in the said show and was not for further explanations about his line of argument; that is until his Twitter box went haywire.

“Woke up to a grand total of 63 angry tweets from indignant Fox News fans approximately 2 of which featured no spelling mistakes,” he tweeted.

Caught in Between

It can be said that the Lone Survivor is just one of the war films caught in between America’s culture skirmish but at this point, this said battle has already reached a very critical point wherein anything that shows the actualities inside military missions becomes a breaking point in this hostile match. Every war film is examined not on how good or effective the filmmaking but on the theme it revolves around.

This was what happened with Zero Dark Thirty – it was accused of playing on the end-justifying-the-means fanaticism and the advocacy of torture. It also happened with 2002 Ridley Scott film  Black Hawk Down – its heated film adaptation of the Battle of Mogidashu perfectly precedes Lone Survivor. Coincidentally, both films have actor Eric Bana in them and both real-life crises resulted to the deaths of exactly 19 American soldiers.

The Making of the Lone Survivor

It is important to not that throughout the making of Lone Survivor, families of the American SEALs involved with that said mission had been closely consulted along with Luttrell’s constant inputs as he was also the film’s technical adviser. It even makes an attempt to avoid indiscriminate racism, which Nicholson accused the film of, by putting weight on the SEALs moral dilemma when they were discovered on the mountain by goat herders: should they let them go and risk the chance of them squealing out and them getting discovered or just kill them? They chose to do the right thing that moment but that decision proved to be the start of their demise.

The film also showed how Luttrell found refuge with a local Pashun tribe – that fact acted with all the sentimentality which just evidently shows how the Lone Survivor is relieved and grateful that a few good brown-skinned people had actually roles to play.

Marcus Luttrell
Marcus Luttrell

For his side, Luttrell had firmly defended the Lone Survivor from its critics but cleverly evading to be drawn into the Republican-Democrat debate. He made his position very clear in his book:

“As a Navy SEAL,” he wrote, “I am sworn to defend my country and carry out the wishes of my commander in chief… Republican or Democrat.”

– The Telegraph reports

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE