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You’re Welcome, Peter Berg: Why the Lone Survivor Film is Better than the Lone Survivor Memoir

(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.

six comments

Yes, we do think Peter Berg was referring to us as those with keyboard courage. Someone emailed us once claiming to know Peter Berg, and though they said they couldn’t put us in touch, they clearly could have forwarded our site to him. Also, the Lone Survivor twitter account has retweeted our articles in the past!

I have read the book and await the film. Indeed there were times I winced a bit at the opinions of the author. It seemed to me the ROE that he criticized in the book, may very well have helped saved his life in the end. I don’t think it would be too far off the mark to assume those Afgan villagers that helped Marcus also experienced some COIN interaction from previous Marine/military personnel in the area. Ultimately after listening to the Goldsmith’s Podcast, it sounds like Peter Berg gets it right. Politics should be set aside and instead, our military showcased for who they are, the risks they take and the heroes they are.

Hi Again.

Do you guys really think that “Lone Survivor“ movie is as “good” as you alluded to in the post in which you thanked Berg, and I don’t just mean relative to the book (which is such a lamentable pile of excrement that Luttrell and the Brit who wrote it for/with him should’ve been shamed into planting one new tree for every hardback copy that was printed, never mind how many were actually sold!)?

LS movie might be “better” than what was portrayed in the book, but by your own account there were countless other tales more worthy of being told than Luttrell’s jingoistic embarrassment (embarrassing to him personally, and to the military that produced such an inept, ignorant operator, and to the country they allegedly ‘represent’/fight for (even if my understanding is that soldiers ultimately, nobley, are usually fighting for their comrades more than any sense of idealism or national purpose)?

Could Berg be trolling Luttrell in general by having made the movie as he made it? Or was he serious about the integrity of his collaboration w/ Luttrell?

OK, that said, now I have a few suggestions for your blog in general:

1) Please place a prominent date sub-header near the top of each post so one can figure out at-a-glance, w/o difficulty, when something was published.

Idk maybe I have a browser setting that is blocking a date sub-header for the posts (??) but if not, I would strongly encourage you to start adding date of publication to each blog post so one can quickly understand when it was authored.

2) Secondly, I’d like to suggest that you reverse your Blog Archive (in the right-hand side menu pane/bar) to go in descending chronological order, from most recent to earliest. So rather than having Dec. 2013 archive link be the penultimate as it is now, necessitating I scroll all the way down to find it, it would instead be rendered in the #2 position. I just think this makes more sense, to run your archive w/ the earliest post at the bottom vs. at the top.

3) Oh, I’d also suggest moving the blog roll to the most subordinate position, moving categories up to a position just under this image http://onviolence.com/images/2011-05/mil.. (the top-5 finalist image) and then place the archive right under the paid sponsor block.

This is just friendly feedback, not meant to be over-bearing or anything. I certainly won’t be offended if you discount all of my advice, just like i know you won’t be offended by some random giving you information architecture blog layout suggestions!

Joe – Ton of comments, but let me address the ones about blog lay out. Those are great ideas. In fact, we have been thinking about the date issue ourselves. The main problem is we don’t have the time to devote to site maintenance right now. If we had the time/money to write fulltime, we’ll start on some of those changes.

For the lone survivor in general comments, let’s just say we’ve only been contacted by someone with a hollywood connection once about memoirs and war films.

Did you have a chance to tell Peter Berg your opinions?

@ Austin – No. I was about to, but then someone offered to take a picture and that ended that. I was going to tell him I liked the film, particularly the middle sequence, then ask him about the new ending.

But it didn’t happen.