Don’t Kill the Messenger: Oren Moverman’s Ode to Casualty Notification Officers

The MessengerThe Messenger, director Oren Moverman’s debut film after a successful screenwriting career, opened in 2009 to critical acclaim but limited popular success. It garnered two Academy Award nominations, made many year-end Top Ten lists, and earned a 90% critics approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. On the other hand, Wikipedia tells us The Messenger never made back its paltry $6.3 million production cost at the box office. The reasons for both the esteem and the disregard are easy to see. Intelligent and alert to its characters’ emotional lives, The Messenger features striking performances by Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson as US Army casualty notification officers charged with delivering notice of a loved one’s death in Iraq or Afghanistan to the casualty’s next-of-kin, and Samantha Morton as the now-widowed recipient of one of the officers’ deathly missives. The film’s grim subject is matched by its languid art-house film pacing, unsympathetic characters, and struggle to find a compelling storyline. Foster, as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, an injured war hero, and Harrelson, as Captain Tony Stone, an embittered captain who never deployed, are cauldrons of pain, confusion, and loneliness. Alternately overly aggressive or defensive, the surly messengers of death treat each other miserably before reaching a rough rapprochement at the film’s end, though their self-hatred makes them proficient emissaries for the hateful news with which they punish their recipients. In terms of plot, Moverman has Staff Sergeant Montgomery fall for Olivia Pitterson, the character played by Morton—a huge violation of the rules the casualty notification officers work by. Pitterson is guarded in her grief and confusion, but ultimately sympathetic to Staff Sergeant Montgomery’s entreaties, which are clearly sexual in addition to emotional. The movie’s ending is bound to strike viewers as more sketchy than heart-warming.

Too harrowing for comfortable watching in the living room and hardly the stuff that would inspire a fun night out at the movies, The Messenger seems better suited for stage drama than cinematic entertainment. Plays invite intense explorations of human pain, with the darkened audience united in their experience of the tortured souls presented live for their contemplation. The roles played by the Foster, Harrelson, and Morton and the set-piece scenes where the soldiers notify parents and spouses that their loved one has died in combat would provide juicy fare for a generation of repertory actors. The notification scenes, six of them, for those not squeamish about watching human catastrophe as it unfolds, are wonderfully staged and performed. Probably no such mission proceeds entirely according to plan, but Moverman has engagingly brought to life idiosyncratic notifications and those that go drastically wrong. In one scene, for example, Captain Stone and Staff Sergeant Montgomery notify a young woman about her husband’s death in the presence of her father, who we learn didn’t even know she had married her beau before his deployment. In another, Stone and Montgomery must use a translator to deliver their scripted, recited message to a distraught Spanish-speaking father while his dead daughter’s infant plays in the background. In scenes such as these—undoubtedly based on reports from actual notification officers–The Messenger drives home the human cost of the wars in ways almost too grim to behold.

The Messenger interestingly dances with issues of military verisimilitude. I’m hardly the harshest critic in this regard, but couldn’t help noticing the goofiness with which the Foster and Harrelson characters wear their Army patrol caps—no soldier in for more than a week would fail to block his or her cap in convention with standard practice or wear it so sloppily. The younger, slighter Foster actually seems more like a junior officer than Harrelson, whose worn rigidness signals field grade officer or senior non-commissioned officer to me (though Captain Stone is said to be a prior-service enlisted soldier whose career as an officer is now topping out, a common enough occurrence in today’s military). But these quibbles don’t detract from the overall effectiveness of the movie. One scene, in addition to those mentioned above, really resonated with me. While drinking alone in a bar one evening, Staff Sergeant Montgomery overhears another vet, just returned, regaling his friends with stories from Iraq. Things go well initially, but the vet pushes his tale too far and soon crosses a line of experience and perspective his friends can’t fathom. As the laughter dies and silence descends upon the party, the vet’s epiphany that he is now far out of synch with his friends crushes him, and crushed me as I watched. Among all the other ways The Messenger is a beautiful downer, its representation of the broken circuits of communication connecting military and civilian is so far down as to be breathtaking.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in Fiction, Poetry, Memoir, Film, and Photography: A Compendium

Intermediate Staging Base Headquarters, Alexandria/Fort Polk, LA. Photo by Bill Putnam, used by permission.
Intermediate Staging Base Headquarters, Alexandria/Fort Polk, LA. Photo by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

Below I’ve catalogued memoirs, imaginative literature, and big-budget films published or released through the end of 2014 that represent important and interesting takes on America’s twenty-first century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lists are subjective and idiosyncratic, not complete or authoritative. Still, they might help all interested in the subject to more clearly and widely view the fields of contemporary war literature and film. I’ve arranged the lists chronologically and within each year alphabetically by author or director. If I’ve misspelled a name or title, gotten a date wrong, or omitted a work you think important, please let me know and we’ll make the list better.

If the author or director has served in the US military, or is the spouse of a veteran, I have annotated the branch of service in parentheses.

The lists of “Important Precursor” texts and films represent works that I think are well known and influential among today’s war artists.  A list of stage, dance, and performance war art is forthcoming.

Important Precursor Texts:

Michael Herr: Dispatches (1978)
Tim O’Brien (Army): The Things They Carried (1990)
Yusef Komunyakaa (Army): Neon Vernacular (1993)
Anthony Swofford (USMC): Jarhead (2003)

Important Precursor Films:

Oliver Stone (Army), director: Platoon (1986)
Stanley Kubrick, director: Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Ridley Scott, director: Blackhawk Down (2001)

Contemporary Fiction:

Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse): You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict: Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army): Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army): The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya: The Watch (2012)
Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter: Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton: What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum: They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson: Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith): The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz: Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Greg Baxter: The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn: Wynne’s War (2014)
Kara Hoffman: Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC): Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC): Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC): Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)

Contemporary Poetry:

Juliana Spahr: This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army): Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse): Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse): Clamor (2010)
Brian Turner (Army): Phantom Noise (2010)
Paul Wasserman (USAF): Say Again All (2012)
Colin Halloran (Army): Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse): Wife and War (2013)
Kevin Powers (Army): Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)

Contemporary Memoir, Blog-writing, and Reportage:

Colby Buzzell (Army): My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005)
Kayla Williams (Army): Love My Rifle More Than I Love You: Young & Female in the U.S. Army (2006)
Nathaniel Fink (USMC): One Bullet Away (2006)
Marcus Luttrell (Navy) and Patrick Robinson: Lone Survivor (2007)
Peter Monsoor (Army): A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq (2008)
Craig Mullaney (Army): The Unforgiving Minute (2009)
Matt Gallagher (Army): Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (2010)
Benjamin Tupper (Army): Greetings from Afghanistan: Send More Ammo (2011)
James Wilhite (Army): We Answered the Call: Building the Crown Jewel of Afghanistan (2010)
Benjamin Busch (USMC): Dust to Dust (2012)
Brian Castner (Air Force): The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows (2012)
Sean Parnell (Army): Outlaw Platoon (2012)
Ron Capps (Army): Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years (2013)
Stanley McChrystal (Army): My Share of the Task (2013)
Adrian Bonenburger (Army): Afghan Post: One Soldier’s Correspondence from America’s Forgotten War (2014)
Jennifer Percy: Demon Camp (2014)
Brian Turner (Army): My Life as a Foreign Country (2014)

Photography:

Sebastian Junger: War (2010) and Tim Hetherington and Infidel (2010)
Benjamin Busch (USMC): The Art in War (2010)
Michael Kamber: Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq (2013)

Film:

Kathryn Bigelow, director: The Hurt Locker (2008)
Sebastian Junger, director: Restrepo (2009)
Oren Moverman, director: The Messenger (2009)
Kathryn Bigelow, director: Zero-Dark-Thirty (2012)
Peter Berg, director: Lone Survivor (2013)
Sebastian Junger, director: Korengal (2014)
Claudia Myers, director: Fort Bliss (2014)

Criticism:

Elizabeth Samet: Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (2007)
Stacey Peebles: Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (2011)
Elizabeth Samet: No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (2014)

A caveat up-front is that my lists do not reflect hundreds of stories, poems, and photographs published individually in anthologies, magazines, and on the web. Some of my favorite stories, by authors such as Mariette Kalinowski, Maurice Decaul, Will Mackin, and Brian Van Reet, and photographs, such as the one by Bill Putnam published here, thus do not appear above, though I hope to post more comprehensive lists in the future.

Another deficiency is the lack of works by international authors and filmmakers, particularly Iraqi and Afghan artists. Again, that project awaits completion.

My list of memoirs is probably the most subjective. The works I’ve listed are those I think important historically or interesting to me personally, with a small nod toward providing a variety of perspectives. The small number of photography texts I’ve listed combine evocative pictures taken at war and on the homefront with insightful commentary written by the photographers and collaborators themselves.

War Stories: Reading and Writing the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

War-StoriesI was invited to speak at Wesleyan University with Roy Scranton and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.  My comments mostly blended Time Now posts with others about Afghanistan from my old blog 15-Month Adventure. Scranton and Roy-Bhattacharya, on the other hand, offered up exciting new work. Scranton read “The Fall,” recently published in Prairie Schooner’s war issue and part of a novel he’s hoping to find a publisher for soon. Roy-Bhattacharya read from a novel in progress.  Both selections portray life in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom from the viewpoint of Iraqis, in Scranton’s case that of two women and in Roy-Bhattacharya’s that of the Baghdad Zoo caretakers.  We’ll have to wait for Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel, but here’s an excerpt from Scranton’s story:

Maha sat in her room listening to Britney Spears, wishing she was anywhere else.  The war was going to ruin her life, she knew it, it was going to ruin her chances for marriage, it was going to ruin everything.  Her skin was breaking out, her hair frizzing, ends splitting.  She stood at her window and looked through the split between two pieces of plywood nailed over the glass and watched smoke drift over her city, and the smoke was her future fading into haze.

And another, from near the end:

They quit going out.  They locked the gate.  They spoke to their neighbors through a crack in the second-story window. They didn’t go out onto the roof.  More explosions, more shooting.  One night they listened to a tank roll down their street.  They heard it stop.  They heard the grind of its turret and heard its gun fire, the sound of hell cracking open, then again, feeling it in their bellies, thumbs, and knees.  They looked at each other and prayed. Allahu akbar, la illaha ila Allah.  They heard a machine gun go tock-tock-tock and the tank rolled away.  An empty house down the block had been its target.  Two gaping holes like blank eye sockets watched the street.

That scene’s sensational, and Roy-Bhattacharya’s story, about the destruction of the Baghdad Zoo, even more so, but I like how they also explore with care the lived lives and and consciousness of Iraqis in that far-away, hard-to-remember time.  Each author was determined to bring the era back, to make it memorable again, reconfigured in ways that allow us to see it from other perspectives, and made vivid through the power of artistic description.

In the audience at the reading was Richard Slotkin, a Wesleyan professor famous for his works Regeneration Through Violence, Gunfighter Nation, and others.  The thesis of Regeneration Through Violence is easy to state: religious, peace-minded Americans learned to love, not hate, violence fighting Native Americans during the Puritan era. Think back to whatever you remember of the King Philip Wars, which were brutal and merciless.  Each subsequent generation of Americans then sought their own bloody encounter with a savage dark-skinned foe. For the next three centuries, Americans pushed westward, driven not by manifest destiny, but bloodlust.  In the 20th century, out of native land, the theory goes, generation by generation Americans created and battled enemies abroad.   Our wars thus have not been Clausewitzian, but Freudian.  Not politics by other means, but psychology at its most primeval.  In Gunfighter Nation, Slotkin examines the ideology of Westerns and war movies.  In the 19th century, print fed what Slotkin calls “the national imaginary” of what it means to fight, but in the 20th and 21st Slotkin argues that it is movies and TV that mold consciousness.  For Slotkin, they do political work preparing an always almost already populace to embrace war. Either they unwittingly rechannel conventions, or their makers do so cravenly and crassly.

Two days after Scranton, Roy-Bhattacharya, and I read, I returned to Wesleyan to hear Slotkin lecture on the 2001 movie adaptation of Mark Bowden’s Blackhawk Down.  Slotkin deplored its degradation of Bowden’s superior book.   He claimed the movie-makers made many artistic choices that reinforced the message that America was justified in heinous overseas adventurism and inculcated the idea that a “kill ‘em all” mentality was not only effective, but morally defensible.  In his lecture, Slotkin mentioned the War Stories reading three times, all favorably.  He asserted that contemporary war writers such as Scranton and Roy-Bhattacharya were working hard and generally succeeding in breaking the pernicious clichés and traps of popular American story-telling. Movies couldn’t do it, he implied; they were too bound by genre conventions and money-making imperatives.  Novelists aren’t free of such things, nor is the publishing industry, but they have a better chance of avoiding them. Staunchly individualist in outlook and solitary in method, writers thoughtfully pursue their visions of the truth free of cant and stereotypes. They tell the stories they want to tell or that they think the nation needs, not wants, to hear.

I was glad to hear that, because it’s what I think, too.  I just hope it’s true.  We’ll see when Hollywood turns Scranton’s and Roy-Bhattacharya’s novels into blockbusters, right?  But first they have to get published, which I hope is soon.

At Wesleyan, with, left to right, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Roy Scranton, me, Richard Slotkin, our host William Pinch of Wesleyan's History Department
Left to right, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Roy Scranton, me, Richard Slotkin, and our host William Pinch of Wesleyan’s History Department

Roy Scranton’s “The Fall” appears in the winter 2013 issue of Prairie Schooner, a special war edition guest edited by Brian Turner.  It is full of interesting stories and poems and fresh voices.

Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence:   The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1975/2000.

Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation:  Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

War Film: GI Film Festival

Ex-US Army officer Laura Law-Millet started the GI Film Festival to showcase films about war and the military by independent movie-makers.  There’s definitely a disconnect between Hollywood and the military, and we wanted to show the real experiences of being in the military,” she says in a West Point Pointer View article about GIFF’s recent visit to the United States Military Academy.  GIFF aired films on two nights, one evening dedicated to a series of shorts and the other to the premier of a feature-length film about Nazi resistance in WWII Hungary called Walking with the Enemy.  All were good, but the film that moved me most was “Prayers for Peace” by Brooklyn-based animation artist Dustin Grella.  A tribute to a brother who was killed in Iraq in 2004, the film ends with harrowing audiotape of Grella’s brother speaking from Iraq while gunfire rattles and pounds in the background.  Those who’ve been in similar situations will remember how easy it was to seem blasé about the the noise of battle when it seemed not immediately threatening.  

GIFF’s major annual event is a weeklong festival that takes place each spring in-and-around Washington, DC.  GIFF14 dates this year are May 19-25 with most of the showings at the Old Town Theater in Alexandria, Virginia.  I’ve looked at many of the trailers on the GIFF website, and the one that catches my eye is Fort Bliss.  About a woman soldier who tries to reconnect with her son after deployment, it is directed by Claudia Myers and stars Michelle Monaghan.  Monaghan has big-time credentials. She currently stars in the HBO series True Detective and in 2005 she played the female lead in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang opposite Robert Downey, Jr. and Val Vilmer and opposite Tom Cruise in 2006’s Mission Impossible III.  I’m sure Fort Bliss will be interesting, but I’m also eager to see if it avoids the traps of Hollywood showbiz filmmaking that GIFF nominally opposes.

War Film: Lone Survivor

lone_survivorLone Survivor joins a number of recent movies that portray unique or elite units at war in Iraq and Afghanistan:  The Objective, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Hurt Locker, for starters, and you might throw in Act of Valor and Delta Farce, too.  The last two aren’t set in Iraq or Afghanistan, but promote and capitalize on the allure special operations units and missions have for Hollywood filmmakers and American audiences.  Perfectly understandable—special operators exude that same allure within our actual fighting forces, too.  Anyone who served on a FOB that was home to a special forces outfit knows exactly what I’m talking about—the burly, bearded men swaggered about their compounds exempt from penny-ante rules about uniforms and grooming, owned the coolest weapons and trucks, and seemed to get all the bad-ass missions.

This micro-level schism played out at the higher strategic levels, too, as recorded in numerous memoirs and histories.  What made the biggest contribution to achieving our war aims?  The endless grind of counterinsurgency operations to win the hearts-and-minds of the populace and their leaders, or the dashing midnight raids to kill or capture insurgent “high value targets”?  Even line soldiers who got their full fill of danger and fighting on daily operations basked in the opportunity to brush shoulders with the Operational Detachment-Alphas, Ranger task forces, and Other Government Agencies that saturated the warzones.  Machine gunner Colby Buzzell writes in My War of a raid his unit conducted with an elite force:  “Doing a joint mission with Task Force 121 in Iraq was every infantryman’s wet fucking dream…. And of course we all wished that we were them.”

Filmmaker Peter Berg gets the ultra-competent insouciance of the Navy SEALs right in the early scenes of Lone Survivor, the story of a four-man SEAL team mission to track a high-level Taliban leader.  The opening shots of would-be SEALs going through selection training in Coronado were very inspiring.  Speaking as someone who joined the Army almost solely for the chance to go to Ranger School, I did my own basking in sympathetic admiration for other men who sought out the hardest tests of strength and stamina they could find.  That Lone Survivor’s opening montage of abjectly brutal training played, unexpectedly, to the spacey post-rock of Explosions in the Sky sealed the deal for me.  Explosions in the Sky was a key component of my personal Afghanistan soundtrack—a friend gave me a compilation CD just before deploying—and now to see the band’s music used prominently in Berg’s movie excited me to no end.

“Lone Survivor” by Explosions in the Sky

The long first two-thirds of Lone Survivor sustained the strong positive impressions of the opening scenes.  Berg appears to have composed the portraits of the SEALs at home in their Bagram Air Force Base camp and the first phases of their doomed reconnaissance mission with an eye toward realism and authenticity both to Marcus Luttrell’s memoir and what he could glean of what these things actually looked like.  But as the SEAL’s mission goes awry and the big battle that took the lives of three of Luttrell’s teammates begins, minor quibbles with both the SEAL team tactics and Berg’s movie-making strategy began to intrude.

Why didn’t the SEALs bring an interpreter?

Why didn’t they take the Afghan goatherders with them back to their helicopter pick-up zone and then release them when they were extracted?

Couldn’t they find hide positions that gave them better fields of fires from which they might defend themselves when attacked ?

I’ve got my own combat decisions to be second-guessed, so let’s leave those questions alone and concern ourselves with Berg’s moviemaking choices.  Once the outnumbered SEALs begin to battle the Taliban, authenticity in Lone Survivor takes a backseat to jazzed-up razzmatazz action movie-making.  Luttrell’s book, which I love, describes the SEAL team being pushed backwards from their hilltop defensive position, with the men alternately leaping or being blown off a series of mountainside ledges.  To film these tumbles down the mountainside, Berg employs a telescopic close-up/slow motion/ground-level tracking/stereophonic thudding sensational film style that portray the falls from perspectives unattainable by any human in real time.  But to what end?  As filmed, it appears the falls would be impossible to survive without concussions or broken bones, but none of that happens to Luttrell and his mates.  With each successive leap and tumble, then, Lone Survivor begins to morph from near-documentary biopic to war-movie fantasy-thriller.

So it was with a slight foreboding I waited for Berg’s rendition of the best scene in Luttrell’s memoir:  his account of team leader Lieutenant Michael Murphy’s courage in exposing himself to enemy fire to make one last satellite phone call for help.  Luttrell writes,

“I could hear him talking. ‘My men are taking heavy fire… we’re getting picked apart.  My guys are dying out here… we need help.’

“And then Mikey took a bullet straight in the back.  I saw the blood spurt from his chest.  He slumped forward, dropping his phone and his rifle.  But then he braced himself, grabbed them both, sat upright again, and once more put the phone to his ear.

I heard him speak again.  “Roger that, sir.  Thank you.’”

Continuing, Luttrell writes,

Roger that, sir.  Thank you.  Will those words ever dim in my memory, even if I live to be a hundred?  Will I ever forget them?  Would you?  And was there ever a greater SEAL team commander, an officer who fought to the last and, as perhaps his dying move, risked everything to save his remaining men…. If they build a memorial to him as high as the Empire State Building, it won’t ever be high enough for me.”

The scene is the emotional centerpiece of the book—Luttrell’s awed recognition that Lieutenant Murphy is not just brave and competent and fiercely dedicated to his sailors, but that he also possesses an uncrackable sense of military deference and personal politeness in regard to his superiors.  Later in the book, Luttrell learns of the pashtunwali codes of hospitality that bind the Afghan villages who rescue him.  But here, watching Lieutenant Murphy he attains a similar glimpse into another foreign culture—that of his officers, or at least one of them, who insists on human decency and the importance of respectful communication in the most dire conditions.

Berg downplays much of this.  In the midst of movie that guns for big emotional buy-ins, the scene is hurried over.  If I recall correctly, we don’t even get the “Roger that, sir.  Thank you” remarks, nor is the scene portrayed from a perspective clearly identifiable as Luttrell’s—who according to his book was the only one who saw it.  Try if you can to find a YouTube clip of the scene–it’s not in any of the trailers.  Can we speculate that perhaps Berg didn’t know how to manage its portrayal, or perhaps even that he didn’t want to?  The filmmaking logic here would be that emphasizing Murphy’s heroism and Luttrell’s response would shift the focus from Luttrell and the team to Murphy.  I get that, and am sure Murphy would agree, too.  But the decision might also reflect Berg’s opinion that Murphy made the wrong decision to let the goatherders go and thus doesn’t deserve heroic portrayal.  I don’t want to think the worst, so let’s let it remain a curiosity that a cinematic portrayal of a Medal of Honor-winning moment gives it such short shrift.

Also hurried over are the book’s entire last third, which tells of Luttrell’s rescue by the villagers of the anti-Taliban town of Sabray and their efforts to deliver Luttrell to American search parties.  These events get about 10 minutes of screentime in the movie, and that which is portrayed deviates from Luttrell’s gripping and sensitive account to tell a far more Hollywood-y story so packed with action-movie clichés to be almost laughable.  In his review of Lone Survivor for The Daily Beast, Benjamin Busch argues that Berg missed a chance to make a better movie by sticking closer to the book.  Or, a better movie by leaving out the Sabray scenes entirely and keeping the focus on combat.  I agree that something more powerful lurks behind the scenes that Berg cartoonishly renders. At movie’s end, the Luttrell character says goodbye to his rescuer Sarawa, more Explosions in the Sky cues and then segues into a cover version by Peter Gabriel of David Bowie’s “Heroes”—one of my all-time favorite songs—that overlays a closing credits montage of all the soldiers and sailors killed in the Lone Survivor operation.  As the credits rolled, tears welled in my eyes and pride in the courage, competence, and fundamental decency of Luttrell, Murphy, all the members of our nation’s elite fighting forces, and Sarawa, too, swelled in my chest.  I don’t love love Lone Survivor, but I definitely can’t hate it, either.  I’m just a little mad at it.  I  don’t know whether to be angry at corporate moviemaking dynamics or Berg’s artistic direction, but I want Lone Survior to be even more than it is, and it’s pretty clear where it goes wrong.

Anyone interested in the geneology of Hollywood’s love affair with special operations has to watch the Vietnam-era The Green Berets, starring John Wayne (1968).  Unabashed heroism and patriotism soon fell out of favor in Hollywood, and movies after The Green BeretsThe Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket— were apt to be gloomy and skeptical.  Things began to change in 1986 with the release of the Chuck Norris sizzler The Delta Force and its sequels, but the real work rekindling the glamor of special operations in impressionable young men’s minds were books published in the ’90s by former SEAL Team 6 commander Richard Marcinko and British SAS operator Andy McNab.  To say their memoirs are inspirational page-turners would be a huge understatement.  I’m betting that special operators who haven’t read Marcinko’s Rogue Warrior (1992) and McNab’s Bravo Two Zero (1993) are few and far between.

GI Film Festival: The Making of Fallujah and The Hornet’s Nest

Ongoing in Washington DC this week is the GI Film Festival, an event that since 2007 has showcased films by soldiers, veterans, and civilian-artists interested in war and military-related issues.  As I look over this year’s schedule, two films, The Making of Fallujah and The Hornet’s Nest, catch my eye.

The Making of Fallujah documents the production of an opera about the bloody battle fought in the titular city in 2004 and 2005. In particular, Fallujah the opera portrays the war and post-war experience of a Marine named Christian Ellis, who fought and was wounded in Fallujah, while also incorporating the points-of-view of American family members and Iraqi citizens.  As far as I can tell, Fallujah has never been staged live, but the movie about its making can be viewed online, along with a trailer and assorted behind-the-scene clips, at The Making of Fallujah. The film offers large swaths of what appear to be near-full-dress workshop performances.  The musical snippets are gorgeous and the storyline and backstory compelling.

The Hornet’s Nest is the feature attraction of the GI Film Festival this year.  From the trailer, it’s hard to tell whether the subject is a 101st Airborne operation in eastern Afghanistan or the father-son embedded journalist team (Mike and Carlos Boettchner) who get caught in the thick of the action, but it definitely promises plenty of human drama and up-close-and-personal small unit bang-bang.

GIFF-Transparent-Logo

Zero Dark Thirty II: Special Operations

With its gripping portait of the SEAL Team 6 raid to kill Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty joins the ranks of recent films that reflect Hollywood’s love for special operations derring-do.  I’m thinking of Act of Valor, which isn’t even set in Iraq or Afghanistan (that’s curious right there) and which has racked up a not-so sterling 25% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m thinking of The Objective, a little known and undeniably loopy sci-fi war film that tracks a Special Forces mission gone terribly wrong in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. Against such lame competition, it’s not hard for Zero Dark Thirty to excel. The pleasure is exactly how well the film captures the testosterone-infused chill of the SEALs as they lounge around their base camp and their easy-going professionalism when they swing into action.

The one funny line in all of Zero Dark Thirty comes from the mouth of a SEAL team member midway through the raid in Abbottabad. “I forgot,” he jokes just before the final assault, “was crashing a helicopter part of the plan?” Perfect.

Hollywood’s interest in special forces operations mirrors a truth that vexes national strategy debates and on-the-ground operations in theater. Counterinsurgency, nation-building, and drone strikes are all good, in their way, but dark side snatch-and-grabs are far sexier and arguably more effective.

So, in the midst of all this special ops love I eagerly await the arrival of the film version of Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor later this year. Starring Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell and Taylor Kitsch (of Friday Night Lights) as the magnificent Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, and directed by Peter Berg (also of Friday Night Lights), it has a chance to be really good, or at least really interesting. Lone Survivor is the story of a SEAL mission in Afghanistan in which Lieutenant Murphy earned the Medal of Honor.  The mission cost three of the four SEALs involved their lives.  No disrespect to Lieutenant Murphy—it’s when things go wrong that heroes emerge—but the irony of Lone Survivor’s reception as an American success story should not be lost on a filmmaker as talented as Berg. With Lone Survivor, we might begin to get the human and tactical sides of special operations in some of their complexity.

Then again, Berg also directed Battleship, which like The Objective tried to combine the movie genres of war and science fiction and failed just as miserably.  What’s up with that???

SEAL Team 6 personnel chilling between missions, as portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty. Life is good.
SEAL Team 6 personnel chilling between missions, as portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty.
SEAL Team 6 in action, from Zero Dark Thirty.
SEAL Team 6 in action, from Zero Dark Thirty.
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