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“Lone Survivor” Popular War Film Inspires Controversey

Staff Writer

Published: Friday, February 14, 2014

Updated: Monday, February 17, 2014 15:02


 Last month’s “Lone Survivor”, a film based upon the real-life experience of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, set an opening weekend record and is the highest-grossing film about the Afghanistan war, earning a domestic total beyond $100 million.  The film’s subject matter and its immense popularity has elicited various reactions. 

   The controversy stems from a critical scene at the end of the film’s first act: Luttrell’s company of 4 soldiers, on a classified mission to assassinate Taliban military leader Ahmad 

   Shah, is discovered by a group of goat herders just outside Shah’s encampment.  The SEALs must decide whether to kill civilians or let them go. The SEALs discuss both options and ultimately decide to release the civilians.   

   Shortly after, Taliban from the encampment engage the SEALs in a firefight that will lead to the death of 3 of the company, along with 16 other American military personnel. Many people feel that the option of killing the villagers (one of which is a child, another a teenager) defames the troops. 

   Eric Eliason, a chaplain for a Special Forces Group that patrolled the same river valley in the Pech District of Konar Province in 2004, just one year before the film’s events, wrote, “We passed goatherds [and shepherds] almost daily... Never once did we think to detain, let alone kill, them.”

  Eliason believes that to portray the soldiers considering committing a war crime as “routine” casts a bad, and false light on the troops. 

 The top-secret nature of their mission and number of hostile combatants in close proximity, hardly qualify as routine circumstances. 

   Routine or not, the film is at least somewhat accurate in its depiction: the debate did take place.  Luttrell recounts the events in an interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes: ‘We talked about zip tying ‘em and leaving ‘em... zip tying ‘em and taking ‘em... We talked about zip tying and eliminating the threat, the human threat.’ Many, like Eliason, believe the film unjustly vilifies the Afghani people.    

   The film explicitly shows a cause and effect relationship between the goat herder’s release and the Taliban attack.  Eliason points out that, ‘Any number of things, from poor contingency planning to Talibs with binoculars, could have compromised [Luttrell’s] team.’  While it’s true that we can’t know for sure how the troops were discovered, it’s unfair to say the film vilifies Afghanis. Granted the entire second act is basically a Taliban shooting gallery; though this is more characteristic of cinematic exploitation of unpopular political groups, in the same vein as the piles of dead Nazis found in old Ronald Reagan movies.  Perhaps the most valiant character in the film is Mohammad Gulab, one of many Afghani villagers who shelters Luttrell from the Taliban at great personal cost. 

   The film doesn’t earn the controversy surrounding it, but what the movie does justify is its immense popularity.  Behind all the politics is one of the most visually dazzling and well-paced action films in recent years.

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