‘Lone Survivor’ confronts viewers with true cost of war
I wasn’t eager about seeing “Lone Survivor,” the new film about four U.S. Navy SEALs forced to fight a terrible and heroic battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
What worried me was that it would turn out to be a typical Hollywood war movie, with archetypal characters (the city kid, the cynic, the country boy, etc.) and some kind of big speech at the climax.
But it wasn’t a typical Hollywood war movie. It is about morality and the cost and a mission gone wrong. And I’m glad I saw it.
One of the good things about “Lone Survivor” is that there isn’t a big rousing speech from the star. Instead, there was a short line. But it seized me and I just can’t shake it. It is delivered on the bloody mountain, a request from one wounded SEAL to another, asking, simply, that a message be sent to his wife:
“If I die I want you to make sure that Cindy knows how much I love her, and that I died with my brothers with a full … heart.”
When the movie had finished, as the credits rolled, many of us in the theater sat still and stayed that way, thinking of what we’d just seen. On screen, there were photos of the actual SEALs and helicopter pilots and other soldiers who died in that fight.
You see them with their wives, with their kids, you read their names.
The film is leading at the box office, but that’s not a reason to see it. If nothing else, “Lone Survivor” serves America by confronting us — and the political class — with what America is desperately trying to avoid and forget.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks were long ago. And the advantage once held by the political class, talking about duty as if they understood it, is long gone. They don’t make speeches about war. President Barack Obama remains stubbornly ambiguous at best about the other 9/11, about those other former SEALs who were left to die on the rooftops of Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012.
Here’s the thing: America sends our people into bad places, into Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. So we owe them. The very least we owe them is consideration.
Like many of you, I’d heard the buzz about “Lone Survivor,” with some early reviews talking about the realism, although how the hell would they know? Realism in a war movie? My father had an answer when we’d ask him to watch a war movie on TV.
“Put on Bob Hope,” he’d say, mentioning a comedian of another age.
My father spent almost a decade fighting, first in World War II, in the Albanian mountains in the snow against the Italians and the Germans. He survived the Nazi occupation when the Germans forced starvation of Athens. Then came more fighting in the terrible civil war against the communist guerrillas in Greece.
So after that, he wasn’t remotely interested in war movies. If you told him a war movie was supposed to be “realistic,” he’d just look at you, or look through you. Once he said that if a war movie was truly realistic, then you could smell it. And it doesn’t smell like popcorn.
“So put on Bob Hope, will you?” and he’d stare at the TV, and he’d light a smoke and sigh and go someplace inside himself.
Just before the premiere of “Lone Survivor” I told friends and radio listeners that I wanted to see it. But the truth is, I’d hoped avoid it. Marcus Luttrell changed my mind.
Luttrell is the lone survivor, the SEAL who wrote the book on which the movie is based. In a recent interview on CNN, Jake Tapper said something unfortunate about Afghanistan.
Tapper: “It seemed senseless. I don’t mean to disrespect in any way, but it seemed senseless — all of these wonderful people who were killed for an op that went wrong.”
Luttrell: “We spend our whole lives training to defend this country and then we were sent over there by this country — so you’re telling me because we were over there doing what we were told by our country that it was senseless? And my guys — what? They died for nothing?”
Luttrell: “That’s what you said. So, let me just say, it went bad for us over there, but that was our job. That’s what we did. We didn’t complain about it.”
A few scribes, trolling for readers, criticize the movie as political propaganda. I just don’t think they get it. The movie works because it isn’t political. It works because it is about brothers.
Whether it wins any film prizes is irrelevant. Such honors are about cliques and politics. At the awards ceremony, the stars stand on the red carpet and talk about what they’re wearing, how they’re feeling. They hold up that shiny golden statue. They chatter. They’re validated. Celebrity writers prattle on about the after-parties.
But this movie is something apart from all that chatter. This one has quality.
I suppose you can wait to see it at home when it comes out on cable. You can tell yourself that your big screen and sound system can faithfully reproduce the theater experience. But it can’t reproduce this:
At the end, with the photos of the fallen up there, you turn. Just then some other theater patron looks up and catches your eye. You notice each other, strangers in the movie-house darkness, and there is a mutual recognition of a debt.
We owe them.
(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune who also hosts a radio show on WLS-AM. His e-mail address is: [email protected], and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)