Lone Survivor, Hollywood and the Insufficiency of True Heroism


This essay was published yesterday on Military.Com.



Lone Survivor

I read Marcus Luttrell’s book Lone Survivor soon after it was released. And while some of it strained credulity, I was still impressed by it. I was excited to hear it was being made into a movie. My wife and I made plans to see it soon after it was released.

And then I read this:

A List of the Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality (http://www.onviolence.com/?e=762)

This very interesting and well-researched article shows numerous instances where the movie, for whatever reason, differs from the memoir. Some changes from book to film are understandable; internal dialogue, for example, works great in books but not movies. But director Peter Berg, who professes to have undying respect for our military, altered the story drastically.

In the book, the reportedly true story, Army Rangers moved on foot and unopposed to the village where Luttrell was being sheltered. In the movie, Luttrell is rescued by Search and Rescue personnel during a raging firefight. In the movie, Luttrell is almost decapitated by Taliban, in the book no such thing happens. Movie, Luttrell stabs a Taliban fighter to death during the final battle, doesn’t happen in the book. Movie, Luttrell is so badly wounded his heart stops just after his rescue; book, Luttrell isn’t badly wounded and his rescuers even stop for tea with the villagers. In the movie, the SEALs are after Ahmad Shah because he killed twenty Marines the previous week. In the book, and real life, no he didn’t.

And so on.

These changes are ridiculous, unnecessary to say the least, and at worst a blatant insult to combat veterans. Because apparently, the reality of our experience just isn’t good enough for Hollywood.


Of course, Lone Survivor isn’t the first modern film to unnecessarily ruin a story that was compelling enough already. The makers of Black Hawk Down, for reasons unknown, decided to add a ridiculously stupid scene. When they could have just shown the reality of our Special Operations soldiers surrounded by thousands of hostile Somalis overnight in a distant, exotic city, they instead created an imaginary, impossible situation. In a scene near the end, helicopter gunship pilots coming to aid our troops just can’t identify a target (despite about ten thousand Somali gunmen on roofs in the open). So Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann runs into the street to mark targets with an infrared strobe.

No disrespect at all to Staff Sergeant Eversmann – he went through hell on “the Lost Convoy” – but he wasn’t in the city overnight with the others. And IR strobes are generally used to mark our own positions, not the enemy’s. Does anyone really think our troops, to mark a target for an air strike, have to run up and throw a strobe at it? The incident never happened. But director Ridley Scott added it, because the men of Task Force Ranger just weren’t brave enough for him. The story needed an instance of “true” heroism.

And then there’s We Were Soldiers. The amazing dedication and bravery of a lone American battalion, outnumbered and holding a perimeter for three days against determined attacks by an equally brave and dedicated enemy, just wasn’t interesting enough. So director Randall Wallace added something.

At the end of the movie, Colonel Moore leads his men out of their perimeter to assault the North Vietnamese base camp. The North Vietnamese soldiers ready themselves behind machine guns, prepared to slaughter the attacking Americans. Just as Colonel Moore crests a rise and locks eyes with an enemy machine gunner, as the enemy gunner begins to pull the trigger, mere milliseconds before Colonel Moore is cut to shreds… guess what happens? An American helicopter gunship swoops in and rakes the enemy with gunfire, saving Colonel Moore and all the other (major) characters! How dramatic!

Know what makes it even more dramatic? It never happened. Colonel Moore’s battalion “merely” held their perimeter, losing 79 men killed in the process, until the enemy gave up. Shoot, anyone can do that. So Wallace invented a fake heroic charge. Because the best way to recognize heroism is to exaggerate it.

I have a mental image of movie directors, when they hear of an amazing, heroic military story: they clench their fists, shake in excitement, then suddenly burst out yelling, “I just have to make a movie out of this! And I can’t live with myself if I don’t add something totally stupid to it!”

I suppose Peter Berg, Randall Wallace and Ridley Scott only see bravery in outrageous, unbelievable acts of imaginary valor. If it’s not a Recon Ranger SEAL ninja Green Beret stabbing a grizzly to death with a toothpick while HALO jumping from the space shuttle, they’re just not interested. The bravest acts I saw in Afghanistan would have meant nothing.

The captain and staff sergeant who dragged a KIA down a bare, exposed hillside while under fire from numerous Taliban positions? Not enough. The men who walked into an enemy-held valley, knowing they were going to be ambushed? Don’t waste time with such pettiness. Heading into the open within 100 meters of Taliban positions to recover a fallen comrade from a burned-out vehicle? Piddly things like that don’t even register on a director’s radar.

Hollywood recognizes true heroism. They recognize it by twisting it, hyperinflating it, butchering it, turning it into a cartoon version of reality. All in the name of “honoring veterans”. If onviolence.com’s article is correct, the movie Lone Survivor is as much a “true story” as Jessica Rabbit is a representation of the average woman.

Yes, I’ve heard many of the counter arguments. It’s a movie, everyone knows it’s not “really” true. Hollywood has to make money. Every movie follows a formula, and for war movies there has to be a larger-than-life hero.

Maybe so. I’m just a soldier, not a filmmaker. What do I know about making movies? Nothing, except for this:

Marcus Luttrell is in fact a hero. So were the SEALs with him that day. So were the eight SEALs and eight Army Special Operation aviators who died trying to reach Luttrell’s team. What all those men did that day was amazingly dramatic. The true story, without embellishment, would have made a good movie.

Luttrell and his comrades faced more danger and showed more bravery than most people will ever dream of. Many of our troops have marched bravely into combat, even though the odds were against them, even though they were scared. They chose to serve their country as warriors during a war. They fought, struggled, sacrificed, sometimes bled, sometimes died. They experienced profound hardships, willingly risked their lives for cause and country, suffered crushing losses, and felt the adrenaline-spiked glory of victory. Why do their stories have to be “improved”?

Peter Berg, Randall Wallace or Ridley Scott, please answer the following question. It’s not rhetorical. I’d like an honest explanation.

Wasn’t our actual wartime experience enough for you?



22 Responses to “Lone Survivor, Hollywood and the Insufficiency of True Heroism”

  1. In Hollywood, the motto is simple:

    “We change it because we can!”

    Look up the serial fights Tom Clancy got into over the years with the studios and directors derping up his novels that were all bestsellers, with the genius ideas of hacks who never wrote anything that sold outside the Thirty-Mile Zone around Hollywood.
    The director wants coral reefs off the Chesapeake? Let’s try that.
    Hollywood hand grenades which level a city block, except when the hero throws himself on top of one? Check. Soldiers strafing children, raping women, and cooking puppies over a campfire? You got it, C.B.

    No less an authority than Steven Spielberg said “They have a name for films that get everything right, down to the last little detail. They call them “documentaries”. We aren’t making documentaries.”

    Everyone should remember that, every time they sit down in a movie seat.

    And just maybe, stop abandoning the telling of our stories to the political class of people that have no respect for our guys, or those stories, or even for the truth. It’s a little late to stop abandoning the culture wars to the other side and forfeiting the game, but it isn’t too late. And as Luttrell, you, or countless other people would know, you miss 100% of the shots you never take.

    Remember this when someone wants to option your book(s).

    • Aesop,

      I recall a quote from Clancy, something like, “Selling the movie rights to your book is like giving your daughter to a pimp.” Granted, it would be nice to worry about a filmmaker screwing up my books. But if someone is going to turn Jerry Nunez into a closeted homosexual who’s secretly mad at George Bush for DADT, well, they’re not going to make the movie.

  2. 3 Peter

    The entertainment media almost never represents professional people well. It’s not just the heroism.

    Cool professionalism and competency don’t play well. They are not dramatic enough. There MUST be conflict. There MUST be shouting and argument.!

    • Yeah, and that came up in Line in the Valley with one of the secondary characters. I initially had him yelling on the radio, then changed it because every time I heard one of those guys on the radio overseas they were completely calm.

  3. 5 Vendetta

    If you’ve ever taken a look at the process of screenwriting for blockbuster movies, you’ll find yourself incredibly dismayed by how utterly formulaic the structure they demand is. Even clever, well-written films, ones known for their creativity and originality, all more or less stick to these conventions.

    One of these conventions is the demand for a dramatic climax, where the action, the drama, the threat all reach a peak, exceeding what happens earlier in the film. Military engagements, of course, do not follow the same formula as a screenplay.

    The Lone Survivor’s clifftop battle where the SEAL team is slowly shot to pieces by the Taliban is the natural climax of the story as written in the book. The challenge presented to the filmmakers was that their source material’s climactic action took place too early; audiences don’t want to sit around for forty-five minutes after all the shooting has stopped and the protagonist is no longer in any real danger.

    They had two choices: either A) Pad out the pre-combat half of the film until the battle on the cliffs was pushed into the proper time slot to be the climax, in which case the audience sits around asking themselves when the shooting’s going to start for an hour and a half, or B) Make shit up, throw the hero into even more danger than before, throw in an even bigger battle, put not just the SEALs but also the innocent civilians under threat, and of course, let the villains, the Taliban be properly defeated so the audience doesn’t sit there at the end muttering, “So our troops actually lost this one? Did the Taliban really just win?”

    The formula is there for a reason, it’s what audiences like. Better war filmmakers do try to capture some authenticity, because audiences do like to think they’re watching the real thing, but they like the story conventions more. Hollywood blockbusters are a business product, it all comes back to the box office. Authenticity can enhance the box office potential, but when it clashes with the dramatic structure needed to appeal to a wide audience, it is always superseded by formula.

    That’s why, as a rule, I keep in mind when watching any popular war movies that they are fantasy and entertainment, regardless of how real they bill themselves as.

    • Vendetta,

      Good observations. And I’d be kinda okay with that, if the filmmakers would just talk about the inaccuracies, instead of waking themselves raw over how accurate and realistic this movie supposedly is.

  4. There is nothing more engaging than an actual event which has been held to a high standard of accuracy because it puts you there. One has the opportunity to walk in the life of another; you can’t say it’s only a story because it happened; it really happened. (key word “real”) That’s pretty strong stuff If you ask me. It seems that the true art would be departing the actual experience in a way which impacts the recipient as much as possible without actually being there or having similar experiences. (now that is art)

    I also feel that fictional stories should follow a believable structure as to make it as real as possible. One guy standing in an enemy camp sporting an M-60 with one arm while attending the belt with the other being shot at by fifty enemy soldiers, never getting hit and wiping all of them out just leaves me cold.

    Why sell out to a fictionally polluted audience for brief box office cash when a person could possibly create a movie or a book destine for the classics.

    • 8 Vendetta

      Who determines which movies are destined to be among the classics, though? The film critics, who have their own set of preferences and biases. They’ll pass a war movie with soaring colors no matter how unrealistic it is if they like the acting, editing, cinematography, etc. or if they agree with the movie’s message on one of their pet issues like feminism, torture, America is great/America is evil, etc.

      • Critics only get you so far.

        Moviegoers still get a vote. While there are many ways to lowball and underpromote a good movie into a low box office result, a big box office is rarely wrong. And TV and DVD releases give every movie three whacks at making their mark.

        You usually have to win both critics and moviegoers to be considered a classic. Especially since most critics wouldn’t know a good film if it bit them in the backend.

        Most critics are frustrated/hasbeen/failed/neverwas producers/directors/writers, which is no small club, even inside the studio fences.

        • 10 Peter

          Hence the misrepresentation of professionals.

          Partly because the average viewer wants to identify with the hero or heroine, yet the true hero is not “Everyman” but one in a million. The viewer – who has no experience of heroism – wants to see what they think of as heroism, not what heroism really is. They want heroism to be something that they can do, without the patience, the self-control, the training…….

          Partly because the average viewer does not understand the mindset of the professional……. So they must be presented with a mindset that they do understand.

          • 11 Joe in PNG

            As many have suspected but a few know, there is a standard script template used for most movies these day- as set out in the book “Save the Cat”. Part of it is the “reluctant hero who has to get things together before defeating the villian in the final act” that we see so many times today in movies.

    • Patrick,

      Exactly. If the real story was interesting enough to turn into a movie, why screw with it? I also felt ripped off when I watched a supposedly true story that turned out to be shamelessly dramatized.

  5. 13 defensor fortissimo

    I think you can narrow down 2 basic reasons for Hollywood to massage the truth on an already compelling story. The first and most self aware is the mentality that if it has nipples, it shall be milked. This is the pure capitalist, he’s in it to make money, he makes no secret of the fact and he sees the quickest means to that end is by sticking to the extent same time proven formula whether the story needs it or not. In an unrelated note, this is the same group responsible for the flooding of the market of emo vampires.

    The second is under what I like to call the “Chris Nolan” effect. This is someone driven by a need to try and promote social change by tweaking the facts to suit their worldview. For this style, it’s not enough to have someone raise the most powerful person in the world, it’s also necessary to feed them to a tornado. If one isn’t available, they simply create their own, they’ve got a message goddammit! This ones a little more subtle because so often, it works really well. I would argue Steven pressfield did this in his magnum opus gates of fire, especially at the end, and it does an incredible job translating events from millennia ago into something people from our time can intimately relate to. The problem comes when you try and take that technique and applying it to modern day events. At that point, you have to deal with real life events which people can intimately remember, and our actually around to place their input.

    In that case, I think what we need, to borrow a phrase from science fiction, is a speaker for the dead. In other words, someone honest enough to tell the truth about someone’s life, warts and all, and let the people decide for themselves what they think.

    • Defensor,

      I was a little unclear in the Pressfield reference. You think he wrote that story to push a message? What do you believe the message was?

      I like your “warts and all” statement. That’s one of the reasons I don’t write my good guys as boy scouts.

  6. 15 Joe in PNG

    Point to ponder- just how many vets are involved in filmmaking anyway? If you look back a ways to classic war films such as “The Longest Day” or “A Bridge Too Far”, many of the folks involved in the production were themselves vets, or involved in the WW2 effort in some way. However, since the “New Hollywood” era of the late sixties, few if any vets are making movies. I don’t even know if they’re even allowed into the closed minded bubble of the entertainment industry except as advisors.

  7. 17 Veritas

    It seems to me that the mission was an example of how small mistakes can lead to disaster. Heroic? Failure of communications, back up plans, support plans, lack of realistic options in the face of opposition, and the complete absence of what to doif discovered as they were? If they weren’t ready to get out they shoulf have shot the goat herders. Failure to operate in a rational way cost the team leader his life and those of his men. He placed them in a hopeless situation.

    If I were going to make a film about heroism I’d make one of 21 Sihks who manned a British outpost on the Afganhasitan border and rather than escape choose death while facing 10,000 invading Afghans to give time to their comrades to prepare. Or the Legion at Camerone, where the last six survivors, without ammunition and hope, choose to charge into 2,000 Mexicans rather than surrender.

    But I wouldn’t make a film of a royal screw up.

    • 18 Vendetta

      Oh, it can make for a fantastic movie if things turn into a complete fuck-up…the problem is when you still try to slap that triumphalist tone on top of it and pretend every bit of it was glorious and heroic.

    • A messed-up operation doesn’t mean the individual guys weren’t heroic. Gotta disagree with the overall message of your comment. I wouldn’t have murdered unarmed civilians either, so I don’t blame the team leader. There are certain things I won’t do, even if it’s the only way to keep myself alive.

  8. 20 68W58

    What’s even more telling is that there was an act of real heroism that was left out of Black Hawk Down. From the book there was the account of the USAF PJ who had to run back and forth across the street under fire to treat the wounded, he later was awarded the Air Force Cross for his actions-that was never shown in the movie.

    I always dislike the hype associated with most modern war movies. I wasn’t impressed with “Platoon” and I thought that Tom Hanks’ character in “Saving Private Ryan” was a tactical moron who got his men needlessly killed (the whole thing was hopelessly contrived to anyone with any actual insight into actual military operations), but of course we were told how “realistic” it was, as if “realism”=special effects gore.

    • Doc,

      I get your point about omitting the PJ from BHD, but that actually doesn’t bother me so much. I understand that the moviemakers have limited time and resources, and can’t include every aspect of any story. I also get why they sometimes have to alter conversations or combine multiple characters into one. But I don’t get why they have to intentionally add things they know never happened.

      You’re right about Private Ryan, but on the other hand, real life soldiers often make mistakes that get their men killed. I thought it was pretty stupid to charge uphill against the machine gun nest instead of just using the sniper, but in real life, stupid stuff happens. In Afghanistan I almost got shot in the head by a sniper. After a few shots he hit my gun shield, then stopped shooting. About an hour later, after everything quieted down, one of my soldiers and I were standing in front of the Humvee with our backs to the village the sniper fired from, looking at the impact from the bullet. It took me about two years to realize how stupid that was. At the time it seemed to make perfect sense.

      What I liked about Private Ryan is that it captures the chaos of war, probably better than any other war movie I’ve seen. The scene on the beach, where EVERYTHING goes wrong, is closer to reality than any “‘Murica!” movie I’ve ever seen.

      • 22 Vendetta

        That and the sheer brutality of actual combat was something Private Ryan captured really well. No matter how realistic the effects might be, most war movies fail to capture the same tone. Lot of directors, and a lot of the audience, for that matter, spend too much time worrying over the guns and the bullet wounds and the explosions, and not enough time on the expresssion of the people.

        As tactically inaccurate as that final battle in the French town was made, those hand-to-hand struggles are in my opinion some of the best war movie combat ever filmed. They nailed something you rarely see in other staged footage – the sheer, awful desperation of it. You take a look at their faces and you can plainly see what’s the only thing going through each man’s head, not “Look at me, I’m a badass, I’m a hero, I’m showing off for you” – which is the standard expression of most Hollywood combat scenes, but “God damn it, I want to live! I don’t want to die right here, right now!”

        I think it’s a Spielberg touch, or someone he’s hired more than once. Cause you can catch a glimpse of the same in the one combat scene from his recent “Lincoln” movie – a brief hand-to-hand carnage in Passchendaele-like mud, Confederate and black Union troops bayoneting and drowning each other in the mud. You see that same sort of primal expression on all the faces when they’re about to be speared or stomped down under.

        It’s definitely a directing thing, what they focus their eye on and what they coach their actors to show. Some, many if not most are all about the spectacle, showing the audience something awe-inspiring.

        Some are all about the fight choreography, making it more and more complex and out-of-the-box and original – which quickly oversteps into the realm of fantasy. If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as the Hobbit movies he’s making, you can see exactly where he fell off the map. His LotR battles were all about the spectacle on the epic scale – the results could sometimes be ludicrous (cavalry trampling a wall of pikemen), but the battles and the sieges looked grand and spectacular.

        The Hobbit movies try to echo the grandiose and intricate movements of the huge battles on the scale of a couple dozen fighters at a time – and the results are mind-numbingly, eye-rolling bad, all of the heroes prancing around in their own individual acrobatics show, trick shooting arrows and swinging their swords like a flag dancing routine, and it all looks like some stupid cartoon video game crap.

        Elsewhere you get the anti-war filmmakers who are determined to relentlessly make every moment of their movie some heart-rending gothic tragedy, reducing the whole concept of war to melodrama – there’s no room for authentic expression when every character and every action that takes place is being orchestrated to make the audience cry or seethe with rage. It becomes as far removed from reality as the jingoist war’s all glorious crap you get from the other extreme.

        Making a good war film is more than just getting the uniforms and the weapons and the “who actually did what” narrative to be technically correct. A good war film needs to capture the authentic tone – something a lot harder for filmmakers to understand and even to research than all the technical details. You could have a movie that recreated the exact sequence of events, used the exact equipment and filmed on location of the original battlefield – but if it can’t covey an authentic tone then it is no better than live-action toy soldiers.

        The problem with capturing the right tone is not just that most directors have no idea what the tone of war actually is, but that war is a full-spectrum emotional experience. War pulls on just about everything a person can feel at one time or another, and it shifts from one to another suddenly and without regard for some overarching plot.

        War at a particular moment can be magnificent, grandiose, even beautiful. It can forge ties of friendship, brotherhood, even romance – or it can cut them apart. It can be dirty, gruesome, shameful, depressing, tragic. It can be inspiring, exhilarating, even enjoyable – or just plain funny. Some people will find meaning to their lives in war that they never otherwise would have; some will turn into monsters who might have otherwise lived a peaceful, happy life. Some people come back from it better than they were before, and some people come back broken, and of course plenty don’t come back at all. It reveals some of mankind’s greatest displays of bravery and cowardice, genius and stupidity, heroism and barbarity. Some places and some people actually come out of war stronger, richer, more unified – others of course are left in ruins and in chaos. War can at different times be meaningful, absurd, hopeless, infuriating, awe-inspiring, mind-numbing, heart-wrenching, back-breaking – and in between all that, just fucking mundane and boring a lot of the time.

        It’s a lot to ask of a filmmaker to be able to capture all of that. It’s also a lot to ask of an audience to make sense of all that when it’s stirred up and dished out with whiplash-inducing suddenness and with no clear rhyme or reason why it might be comical one second and then tragic the next before inexplicably turning funny again right up till it suddenly gets intense and then calm and then hopeful and then sad and so on.

        Audiences are used to seeing movies as stories. They aren’t used to making sense of something for themselves; they’re used to following a story that makes sense for them. They’re used to there being some obvious message or moral to take away, and for there to be resolution – conflicts ended, questions answered, character arcs completed.

        War, and thus any movie or other medium truly capturing the full spirit of war, is of course not dictated by the familiar rules of stories most people experience – which is why we’re doomed never to have that many truly good war films.

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