Dec 30

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

I (Eric C) saw the film Lone Survivor a few weeks ago at a special screening hosted by “The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith”. (Goldsmith, who also publishes an e-magazine on screenwriting called Backstory, regularly hosts screenings for upcoming films with screenwriters panels afterward. If you want to work in the film industry, this is a must-listen podcast. If you live in Los Angeles, you should be on the email list.)

Near the end of the question and answer session (also available on iTunes), Peter Berg told the audience:

“I’m sure there are murmurs...There are people who hated the book in the SEAL community, in the military community. There’s people who hate Marcus Luttrell. Not a lot of them. But go online, it’s all there. The beautiful internet. Everybody gets keyboard courage, and says all kinds of things.” (minute 1:22:00 on the podcast)

Which is funny, because Peter Berg followed those keyboard-courage-endowed haters’ advice almost to a T.

By haters, I’m referring, of course, to Michael C and myself, who, along with Ed Darack, have led the effort to correct the historical record on Operation Red Wings. I doubt that Peter Berg expected one of those haters to be in the audience...or to take a picture with him after the screening.

Mostly, I don’t get why Peter Berg mocked us when he agreed with everything we wrote. The Lone Survivor film is good for all the reasons that the Lone Survivor memoir is bad. Peter Berg is a good filmmaker, so he avoided all the mistakes Luttrell and Robinson made when they wrote the memoir. Frankly, I hope they watch the film to realize how they should have written the book.

So what does the Lone Survivor film not do?

1. Politics. Our biggest problem with Lone Survivor (memoir) wasn’t its inaccuracies; it was with its politics. The book is endlessly political, and explicitly and repeatedly blames liberals and the media for the deaths of every Navy SEAL that day. What does Peter Berg think of politics?

There was an active decision to not politicize it...I did not want to make a film that created political discussion over a discussion about who these men were.” (minute 1:11:00)

Unlike the book, in Lone Survivor (film) there are no WMDs or al Qaeda training camps in Iraq, no mentions of George W. Bush, no politics, either liberal or conservative. And it’s a better film for it.

2. Rules of Engagement. Yes, in a crucial scene in the middle of Lone Survivor (film), the SEALs debate the Rules of Engagement, but those ROEs aren’t vilified the way Luttrell vilifies them in his memoir. The discussion is balanced and even-handed, with two characters debating their options. Good art asks questions instead of giving answers.

Lone Survivor (film) asks questions; Lone Survivor (book) gives answers.

3. The Vote. A few weeks ago, Roberto commented on the site:

“Further, some of the things you claim to be false are highly speculative such as the “vote” contraversy. [sic] Im aware that its not customary for battlefield decisions to be subject to democracy but this isnt your everyday military unit and to suggest you have insight into their methodology based off of, well frankly nothing, makes you seem a little pretentious. Im [sic] aware other SEALs have also criticized this claim but again, exigent circumstances can lead to breaking SOPs and the main point is: no one but those 4 men were there.”

Fair enough, Roberto, but what about that fact that in the book Marcus Luttrell clearly writes, “The deciding vote was mine and it will haunt me till they rest me in an east Texas grave. Mikey nodded, ‘I guess that’s two votes to one...’” (pg. 207) and in the film no vote takes place? As Peter Berg said in the Q&A, “Mike Murphy made that decision. There wasn’t a vote.” (minute 00:54:00)

4. The Writing. The writing in Lone Survivor (memoir) is terrible. And I mean terrible. We did post after post after post on it. It’s uninteresting and cliched.

Peter Berg let the actors improvise their dialogue until they found something good. I’m not going to pretend like it’s perfect, (One character's wife wants a horse. Awww!) but it’s a million times more competent than the writing in the book. Most importantly, no characters memorize crosswords in their head.   

5. Pacing. In the memoir, way too much time is spent away from the action, discussing Iraq, training, the home front, political rants. Lone Survivor (film) pares all this down into one tight, brutal story. It’s about the mission and only the mission...just like the book should have been.

5. The Inaccuracies. According to the question and answer session after the screening, Peter Berg believes that Luttrell choose him to tell his story was because of the meticulous amount of research he does before every film. And in doing that research, Berg (must have) learned a few things, like...the actual name of the mission, the actual size of the group attacking the SEALs, who Ahmad Shah actually was, etc.

Peter Berg cut those inaccuracies from the film. (I mean, not the Ahmad Shah thing, but still, he cut a lot of the inaccuracies out.) We’ll dive into the other changes from the film to the memoir later this week.

So yes, some people on the internet may have keyboard courage. But as Lone Survivor (film) proves, sometimes they’re right.

You’re welcome.

Dec 19

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here.)

Before I start my review of Lone Survivor (film), I have some caveats:

- First, the one, lingering problem with the Lone Survivor film is that it will lead people to read the Lone Survivor book. You know how we feel about that.

- Second, the movie is about Navy SEALs, the “quiet professionals” who have way too much publicity. Expect more posts on this next year.

- Third, Michael C hasn’t seen the film, so their could be glaring military inaccuracies I would miss.

That said, I’ll get straight my thesis: I loved Lone Survivor until the ending. I think Lone Survivor is one of the greatest war films ever made, with brutal, excruciating action sequences and great acting. But the ending is so egregiously wrong and over-the-top, I almost can’t recommend it.

Some specifics. Peter Berg shot the action very realistically, with the SEALs sighting their enemies through their rifles and taking them down systematically and professionally. I’ve never seen this type of directing before, and it absolutely works. It’s the type of war film that will make past war films--even the great ones--look dated.

As the battle gets more intense, so does the pain you feel. To escape their attackers, the SEALs literally jump off a cliff. Their falls are some of the best, most-realistic and brutal sequences I’ve ever seen on film. Literally, the audience I watched it with cringed with each fall. It makes you physically move in your chair. On the basis of these sequences alone, I would recommend the film.

What else can I write? The film looks gorgeous, shot with small, handheld cameras but not in a way that brings attention to itself. The acting is tremendous, particularly Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, who just nail their scenes. I’m not a huge Mark Wahlberg fan, but he’s good in this role.

Technically, the film is a masterpiece.

But.

But the ending is horrendous, for reasons I’ll describe later in a much longer post. Peter Berg essentially made up the ending. He took an already inaccurate book, corrected most of those mistakes, then got to the end and was like, “Screw it, I’m making something up.” And the changes are cliched and ridiculous.

I’d recommend seeing Lone Survivor when it airs on cable. But when Marcus Luttrell gets rescued after the firefight, you can press stop, and watch something else. As Michael C pointed out to me, it’s like the inverse Zero Dark Thirty. (We recommend skipping the first hour of that film.)

So yes, Lone Survivor is an incredible, but flawed, piece of filmmaking.

Dec 16

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

Last week, friend of the blog Ed Darack pointed out a mistake in Lone Survivor (film) that we had previously missed when we reviewed the trailer. That mistake is...

Ahmad Shah killed 20 marines the week before Operation Red Wings.

Lone Survivor inaccuracies fall into roughly three categories: 1. Those we can prove definitively. (Like the name of the operation.) 2. Those we can say have no evidence to support them. (Luttrell’s past claims about the number of attackers.) 3. Theoretical mistakes. (The SEAL team had more than 2 options on the hill side.)

This mistake falls firmly in the first category.

In the new film, during the briefing before the operation, someone claims that Shah killed “20 marines” the week before. In full disclosure, Eric C didn’t notice this during his first viewing of the film. Though we haven’t had a chance to see the movie again, there’s good evidence this line made it into the final cut. First, Emanuel Levy writes in his review, “Shah killed 20 marines the previous week.” Further, the screenplay of Lone Survivor on UniversalPictureAwards.com has Lt. Commander Erik Kristensen saying, “We know Shah killed fourteen Marines last Tuesday in Kandahar.”

Oh, and it’s in the trailer. (At the 40 second mark.)

In his interview with 60 Minutes last Sunday, Marcus Luttrell echoed this theme, telling Scott Pelley, “[Ahmad Shah] was...killing Marines, Army, I mean, you name it.”

Of course, Luttrell amplified Ahmad Shah’s role even further in Lone Survivor (memoir) (page 179):

“...suffice it to say [Ahmad Shah] was a serious Taliban force, a sinister mountain man known to make forays into cities and known to have been directly responsible for several lethal attacks on U.S. Marines, always with bombs...had already murdered many of my colleagues in the U.S. Marines.”

The truth is much less sexy. And fact-checkable, thanks to the work of iCasualties.org.

As Ed Darack writes in Victory Point, intelligence only linked Ahmad Shah to eleven attacks. Even if he had been responsible for all the deaths in that part of Afghanistan--when I deployed to Afghanistan/the Korengal valley, we called it N2KL: Nuristan, Nangahar, Kunar and Laghman--only three U.S. service-members died in all of 2005 because of hostile action. Two marines died in Laghman by enemy fire. (Which Shah could possibly have assisted, but most likely didn’t.) One soldier died in an IED blast near Asadabad in Kunar province. One marine drowned in the Pech River, also in Kunar. (I ended up living in both of the bases named after the casualties in Kunar of 2005, Camp Wright and Camp Joyce.)

Four is much less than 14 or 20, which is what makes this mistake so glaring. Worse, in all of Afghanistan in 2005, only 99 U.S. soldiers and marines died in total. In the week before Operation Red Wings, no soldiers or marines died in Kandahar province the week before, much less 14. Only one soldier died from a bomb in 2005 in Kunar up to that point. The worst loss of U.S. life in 2005 took place in Ghazni province in a non-hostile helicopter crash. Further, the majority of the fighting in Afghanistan was taking place in provinces far removed from Kunar and its environs. Specifically, many more casualties took place in Paktika, Paktia, Logar and other provinces.

So why did this new mistake come to pass? Like the initial Lone Survivor (memoir) mistakes, it makes for a much better story. The Universal Pictures’ Oscar website describe Ahmad Shah as a “high level al Qaeda” operative, when he was no such thing. The movie describes him killing 20 marines in one week, when he hadn’t killed that many people in the war period. The initial screenplay describes him as a national figure--Kandahar is hundreds of miles from Kunar--when he was at best a regional player. Turning Shah into a national, al Qaeda leader who is killing marines by the dozens makes him a much better villain, but it wasn’t true.

It turns out, the truth doesn’t sell very well.

Dec 08

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

When we first wrote about Lone Survivor, we identified several clear mistakes:

1. The number of fighters involved (Luttrell put the number of enemies in interviews at over 100 when military documents kept it at 30-40.)

2. Ahmad Shah/”Ben Sharmak” (Luttrell claims he was a top al Qaeda commander and Osama bin Laden lieutenant when he wasn’t even in the Taliban, but allied with it.)   

3. The name of the mission (Red Wing versus Redwings)

4. The fact that a vote took place. (Though we can’t prove that it didn’t, the military is not a democracy.)

In addition to those mistakes, we also took issue with the idea that Luttrell only had a choice between killing the goatherders, or letting them go free. We believe the SEALS also had the options to take the goatherders captive or evacuate after they let them go, which they chose not to do.

Later, we pointed out in “Marcus Luttrell Stands by His Mistakes” that Luttrell repeats these inaccuracies ad nauseum, in interviews, speeches before the NRA and other political groups, and campaign ads.

All the mistakes above have been corrected by Marcus Luttrell in his most recent 60 Minutes interview. (We should also mention that Peter Berg also took out the mistakes in the Lone Survivor movie.) Below, we’ve cut paragraphs from the transcript of the 60 Minutes interview, to point out where Marcus Luttrell has changed his story.

Did they take a vote?

“Luttrell told us the unit discussed what to do and were divided.  In the past he’s been criticized for saying they took a vote… something that’s not supposed to happen in SEAL teams because it’s up to the team leader to make a decision.

Anderson Cooper: What did Mike finally decide to do?

Marcus Luttrell: Oh, we cut 'em loose.”

How many people attacked?

“The first guy I saw had an RPG over each shoulder and an AK-47 and then there was about 30 or 40 guys in line with him.”

Ahmad Shah, al Qaeda or Taliban?

“Their job was to locate this man whom the four SEALs had only seen in grainy photographs. He was an elusive militia leader aligned with the Taliban named Ahmad Shah.

Anderson Cooper: Who was Ahmad Shah?

Marcus Luttrell: He had a group that he ran called the Mountain Tigers. He was creating all kinds of havoc out there in that particular region that he was in, killing Marines, Army, I mean, you name it.

Kill the Goatherders?

Actually, this one isn’t from Luttrell, it’s from a retired officer in the Navy.

“Retired Vice Admiral Joe Maguire says the only options the SEALs really had were to take the goat herders captive and try to get evacuated by helicopter or let them go.”

Oh, and the name of the mission?

“They were part of a larger mission called Operation Red Wings.”

Appropriately enough, we didn’t actually buy a copy of Lone Survivor, the book, until two weeks ago. Eric C, after he saw Lone Survivor, the movie, bought a copy of the memoir to see if the ending of the film is completely made up. (Spoiler alert: it is.) And in that copy of Lone Survivor all of the mistakes remain. The inaccurate number of attackers, the al Qaeda affiliation for Ahmad Shah, and the vote.

Hell, the title still reads “Operation Redwing”.

So everyone who rushes out to buy a copy of this book will remain woefully misinformed.