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It’s Not Just "Hollywood”: Why the Accuracy of Lone Survivor (Film) Matters

(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hits theaters across the country on January 10th, we’re devoting this week to that topic.

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.)

Michael C and I have actually been kind of surprised (and pleased) at the overwhelmingly positive response to last Thursday’s post, “A List of the Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality”. Like any widely-shared post, we’ve also received some criticism. Mostly the two criticisms are, first, “Does this matter?” (We’ll address that criticism tomorrow.) The second most common criticism we’ve received is:

Everyone knows movies aren’t real!

For example, from Jay, “It’s a movie made for entertainment. No one should walk away and think ‘now I know what it was like on the ground.’” Or from Juan on Doctrine Man’s Facebook page, “Just a simple thought. If you go to the movies to learn history lessons, then you might want to consider going back to school...” Or from Rick, also on Doctrine Man’s Facebook page, “anyone who looks to Hollywood for truth has other problems”.

To this criticism, I have five rebuttals:

1. Lone Survivor is being marketed as a film that captures “the essential experience” of those SEALs.

From the “Production Notes” distributed to all major film reviewers:

“Although Lone Survivor takes the creative liberties necessary to make a movie, it is committed to preserving the essential experience of what these men endured on their mission. It is a realistic, timeless and isolated portrait of the sacrifices that one small band of warriors made...and how one survived to tell their tale.”

Peter Berg has explicitly stated that he wanted to make the most accurate film possible. "I've never felt more pressure to get a film right," Berg told Men’s Journal. Speaking with Jeff Goldsmith for the Q&A, Berg brought up research multiple times, “For me, everything good that I think I’ve ever done has come from research...For both films, research was the key.” (Min 16:00) Berg goes on to talk, at minute 18:00, about how Luttrell choose him to turn Lone Survivor into a movie because of this attention to detail. Berg mentioned this research on The BS Report as well.

That makes the mistakes in this film more important, not less.

2. Film critics and the media are promoting the film as an accurate, realistic portrayal.

Many critics and reporters have praised Lone Survivor (film) for its accuracy:

Jocelyn Noveck for the AP: “...expertly rendered account of a disastrous 2005 military operation in Afghanistan...And he's executed that approach with admirable skill, down to using autopsy reports to get the number of wounds a soldier suffered exactly right.”

Ethan Sacks for the NY Daily News: “‘Lone Survivor’ features some of the most realistic military combat scenes ever filmed.”

Betsy Sharkey for the Los Angeles Times: “...with a gruesome energy and a remarkable reality...The production and costume designers have paid a great deal of attention to the details, from the uniforms and tribal robes, to the bullet wounds and blood. It certainly adds to the film's verisimilitude.”

A.A. Dowd for The AV Club: “...gruelingly committed to realism...unrelenting, hyper-real way”

These reviewers--aka the experts--believed in Lone Survivor’s authenticity.

3. Most viewers who see Lone Survivor will accept what they see on screen as true.

I know this thanks to science. A study by Duke researchers shows that students who watch historical films learn the inaccuracies in those films, even when they’re told to research the inaccuracies later. They still remember the mistakes, and repeat them on tests.

4. I was fooled.

One of the things I initially praised about Lone Survivor was the battle scene, which was expertly done. Except, as some critics have pointed out, much of that battle scene is unrealistic, or at least one-sided. Mainly, our troops--the SEALs--take down 23 enemy fighters, usually with just one or two expertly placed bullets. The SEALs, on the other hand, take bullet after bullet without stopping.

As Michael C had to point out to me, this just isn’t how war really works. A rugged Afghan mountain man will take roughly the same amount of punishment as a rugged American soldier/SEAL. In our opinion, our better trained SEALs likely shot a lot of the insurgents. But that doesn’t mean they killed those insurgents that easily, which the movie repeatedly shows.

But I didn’t know that when I saw the film. I thought it was perfectly accurate. As probably the most skeptical viewer of Lone Survivor in the country, if I got fooled, anyone could.

5. Lone Survivor (film) is not accurate.

If a film has a 4,300 word blog post rebutting its inaccuracies, that film didn’t capture the “essential experience” of the operation. From Ahmad Shah “killing 20 marines” the week before Operation Red Wings to the fictionalized third act, the film gets a lot of things wrong. And viewers will remember those mistakes even though they shouldn’t. And despite beliefs to the contrary, most Americans will believe these events actually happened.

Most viewers will not know that Marcus Luttrell never survived a final firefight in the village that rescued him, unless they stumble upon our blog.

So feel free to shrug off the mistakes as no big deal. Or as simply, “Hollywood”. But know that these films will permanently misinform many, many people.

seven comments

Just a quick note: I’m doing more writing/research on Lone Survivor today, and Lutrell and Berg stress in literally dozens of interviews that they wanted the movie to be as accurate as possible.

So for people who don’t think accuracy matters, that was their number one goal.

It is important for these things to be pointed out. Sadly, the people who see the movie and swallow it whole are probably not the people who will later be interested in fact-checking it. If it is true that Luttrell wrote the book and participated in the movie only because the Navy wanted him to IOT set the story straight then it matters even more that the book and the movie do get it right.

Whenever I see a movie ‘based on true events’ (especially movies related to war or political figures) I am always skeptical about the portrayal of those events or people. Having read Luttrell’s book, I initially had no interest in seeing the movie because it was so politically screechy and I thought it distracted from the actual events during the operation. Thanks for doing all the hard work of comparing and documenting the errors, mistakes, and exaggerations – it will make watching the movie (if I do) more enjoyable because my BS meter can take a break! So really, thanks.

@ Amazon – I’m working a post right now debunking that claim by Luttrell. In short, he’s contradicted that point several times, saying the military ordered him to write the book, by asked him to write it, or that he offered to write it on his own.

It is not unreasonable to believe that the assertions made by the involved “Lone Survivor” parties regarding film production authenticity are merely effective marketing techniques. Peter Berg’s antics of exulting the research effort and its’ alleged accurate application primarily enhances the film’s general financial success.

I mean, that’s what this is about, right? Making beaucoup coin off others’ ultimate sacrifice? Fuck Peter Berg.

An update from the WaPo:

“Lone Survivor” has largely drawn praise as a brutal ode to Navy SEALs and a faithful depiction of the moral confusion of combat.”


Glad y’all are around to point out the inaccuracies of both the book and the movie.

I read the book several years ago. I enjoyed it. I don’t know that I raved about it, but I was certainly entertained, and, regardless of the politicized aspects, I was impressed with the dedication it takes to become a SEAL and the sacrifices made for country.

I watched the movie. It had been several years since I read the book (which I had given away), but I was pretty sure there was no epic firefight or near-beheading of Luttrell. Yours’ was the only website I could find that confirmed my vague recollection of the book’s ending.

I’m disgusted at the liberties that Berg (and to the extent Luttrell let him) took with the film. The dramatic near-death Luttrell at the beginning, the near-beheading, the swoop-in-to-save-the-poor-villagers ending? Unnecessary, false, and pathetic Hollywood moments. It was sensationalized and over-the-top. It completely ruined the movie for me. And don’t get me started on the stupid “Best war movie since Saving Private Ryan” quotes in the commercials.

My critique: I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, but strictly from the Hollywood expectation viewpoint. From an accuracy viewpoint in terms of who, what, where, when and how, that has been adequately covered by others. From a strictly realistic fire fighting viewpoint, I think Hollywood influenced it a great deal and I question it. Examples: Given the terrain as shown, the fact that they let the shepherds go, knowing full well how many bad guys were in the village and the possible consequences, it did not seem they made sufficient effort to escape and evade. How could so many Afghans rally and get to them and gain the high ground so quickly? They should have dee deed much faster & not have stopped. There did not pap pear to be a prearranged plan of egress either. Insertions ALWAYS run the risk of something going wrong and there should be Plan B, C, D, etc. The BS about the loss of communication is also puzzling. That would, I would assume IMMEDIATELY rally back up. Once the fight started, it appears they were already surrounded – again, why so quickly? That should not have happened & I find it strange. Then, there is the number of hits taken seemed to not be that debilitating. An AK47 is not a BB gun for goodness sake. Then, on top of the the bullet wounds, taking the alleged falls and tumbles over rocks and trees on top of that seems improbable. As well trained and tough as Seals are, you can’t train to prevent broken bones. Plus, the issue of always finding their weapons after each fall nearby was not realistic. I think that was exaggerated. My suspicion is that they ended up getting much more separated than the film depicts. They seemed to be calling out to each other more than I would think that they would, thereby giving away individual positions. Basically the whole mission was a screw up from many viewpoints. Perhaps modern day tactics are different than in my day, but the depiction of the whole battle was more like an ambush than what was depicted. There is a questionable time line. Given the situation of seemingly having a window to escape and evade, they then remained too cohesive in my opinion. My guess is they were more separated and that is how Luttrell managed to escape. It is not my intention to question here
their bravery, heroism, etc. I am just saying there is something wrong in the battle depictions. There is a lot of Hollywood there. I disagree that it is the most realistic battle film. I maintain that Platoon still holds the rights to that. Different war, I admit, but there are scenes in that which are spot on, but I won’t go into that.