"No soldier ever really survives a war."- Audie Murphy
The theater was packed for the first show of Lone Survivor on a Saturday morning.
We sat riveted by the story of Marcus Luttrell, a big, shambling Texan who was the lone survivor of a botched mission in the mountains of Afghanistan. I had read his book and had seen him interviewed about the book several years ago. I was struck then, and now, by how troubled this young man clearly was by his war experiences and the guilt of surviving when his closest friends didn't.
In the movie he is played by Mark Wahlberg, an actor I've always liked, but who is severely miscast in Lone Survivor. Somehow it just didn't seem right for a model, rapper, actor from Dorchester to play a hardcore Navy SEAL from Texas. He's too small, with weight trainer muscles, dyed hair and no command presence. And, his presence in the movie dictates the inclusion of all sorts of Hollywood folderol because, you know, he's an "A-List" star.
But, Lone Survivor proves that Hollywood has gotten better at war movies. They've finally got the loudness of it right. They show believable small-unit tactics rather than men running upright into machine gun fire. Artillery shells and mortars explode in deadly, utilitarian blacks and grays not as if napalm bombs.
Recent war movies show more respect for our enemies, as well, in that they are not just hopeless dolts there to be mown down, but deadly murderous professionals. The uniforms, machines and weaponry in movies now are more authentic, too, probably because they are about events just a few years old.
There were a few war movies in the past that seemed true: Attack (1956) showing politics and cowardice killing men during the Battle of the Bulge, and Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) with WWI trench scenes that made you feel the mud.
Then Platoon changed everything. And, Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan brought a reality that had never been seen before. This high level of attention to detail and verisimilitude continued through last year's Act of Valor, and the terrific, Best Picture, Zero Dark Thirty.
On the other hand, Hollywood still populates war movies with older stars; at least old for the parts they play. Mark Wallberg is 42. So was Tom Hanks when he portrayed a ranger captain in Saving Private Ryan -- 42-year-olds are colonels or generals, not Infantry captains, not enlisted members of a SEAL team.
And, of course, in the business of Hollywood, to get financing for a movie, star power equals financing. And, often with mega stars, scripts become star vehicles.
Which becomes extremely problematic in a movie based on a book like Lone Survivor. Afghanistan is still a war zone. Young Americans are being killed there every month. Marcus Luttrell is still a very young man, a complex and brave young man, whose sincerity when discussing the events that have made him famous, brings one to tears. His book, his story, is still hallowed ground, demanding immense respect and admiration for all that was sacrificed with such selfless dedication.
The movie honors all of that until the last third when box office and star exigencies trump the gritty, riveting previous 90 minutes of men in combat.
For those 90 minutes we sat in silence, teeth grinding at the tension, as Lone Survivor took us from the severity of SEAL training, to the mission, to the unbelievable moral choice the team members were forced to make, to the consequences of that choice: a running firefight down a mountainside and, as if we were there, how the book and movie came to be titled.
But, when Marcus/Mark survives, the scriptwriter and director move dramatically into a fanciful "Old Hollywood" war movie cartoon that must have been hard for Marcus Luttrell to take, even worse to promote, even worse to live with given that most combat veterans abhor false heroics.
Audie Murphy wrote the quote at the top, a name you probably won't recognize. A Texan like Marcus Luttrell, he was the most decorated American soldier of WWII. He, too, came back from war and wrote a book about his experiences, To Hell and Back. Think about the title, to hell... and back. Hollywood made a movie based on his book and, insisted that he star in it, despite a script that twisted and turned his story into Hollywood cheese spread complete with Ft. Lewis, Washington in summer becoming the Colmar Pocket in winter.
Audie Murphy, as the quote suggests, perhaps like the real Marcus, despite the fame movies gave him, was so affected by his war that he drugged himself to sleep for years, and, when he could sleep, slept with a loaded .45 under his pillow.
Admirably, he used the celebrity his Medal of Honor and movie stardom created to publicize, for the first time, the lingering affects of combat on the millions of servicemen just back from the war. Long before PTSD became generally recognized as a debilitating condition by the medical community.
I thought about Audie Murphy as I watched the real Marcus Luttrell in a cameo on the screen at the beginning of the movie, and again after watching his strong reaction to questions posed by Jake Tapper of CNN on a YouTube video a friend sent me tonight.
It's a shame that in Lone Survivor the realism of Ryan and Zero Dark, the wrenching descriptions in the book, become a cartoonish finale to make the star a superhero in a manner that is jarring and distracting. I can't imagine what Mr. Luttrell, or the families of the men killed in Operation Red Wings, thought when they saw it for the first time.
Maybe from an earlier generation: FUBAR.
With the "movie" over, the director regains his composure, and adds what has to be the most emotional, most affecting tribute ever done in an American film to those who willingly gave their last full measure because we asked them to.
I won't describe it. Every American should see it.