By Tom Demerly.
Early July 2005: I was in the car. CNN was on. There was a report of a “U.S. long range reconnaissance team lost in Afghanistan”. They went to a commercial.
I pictured what must have been going on. Marine recon, Army Special Forces, Naval Special Warfare, Air Force Special Operations. It was one or some combination of them. They had no comms, they were cut off, they may be lost, their food was gone. They may not even be alive by the time it made the news.
In the mid to late 1980’s I was a member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team, Co. F., 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Michigan National Guard. I was the scout/observer for our five man reconnaissance team. We never saw combat then. But the sense of being a long way from home, cold, wet, hungry and with no communications is a very familiar one. Our radios never worked. We rarely got comms. We often walked home, even on training missions.
In 2007 when Marcus Luttrell wrote his book Lone Survivor I read it in one sitting, and didn’t sleep well for days. His account of a long range surveillance mission gone bad is harrowing and realistic.
This weekend Director Peter Berg’s adaptation of Lone Survivor hit theaters. Berg is the mastermind behind the impressive and haunting film The Kingdom from 2007.
Berg executes the complex story of Operation Red Wings told in Luttrell’s Lone Survivor with the level of authenticity you expect for a 121-minute Hollywood movie. There are moments when the film “works”, sort of. But for the most part it is clunky, forced and unrealistic feeling.
Berg may get a pass because faithfully depicting the horror of a small recon team retreating down a cliff side in the high Afghan mountains of Kunar Province is technically demanding. But remember Steven Spielberg’s D-Day landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, a scene so real it makes you recoil in terror and smell the cordite, exhaust fumes and gore. Even Ridley Scott’s Blackhawk Down, while very “Hollywood-ized” provides a more authentic and vertiginous sense of what combat must be like. Both Saving Private Ryan and Blackhawk Down “feel” more realistic. Lone Survivor relied too heavily on bad set dressing, rotten camera movement, poor make-up and a generally inauthentic “look” to deliver.
The shape and storyline of Lone Survivor is good but the look and feel is shallow and contrite. There is so much “punch” and terror to this story it could have been done better. The digital effects, especially of aircraft and wide scenes, are embarrassingly poor by current standards. Lone Survivor simply looked “hurried” and synthetic. The make-up effects of wounds and blood looked like something you’d see in a Halloween haunted house. Even after three days of a long range reconnaissance patrol the characters didn’t look authentically dirty and grimy.
Another nick against Lone Survivor is that the “Afghanis” didn’t look like they lived in the mountains of Kunar Province. They looked like people from an L.A. cattle call for “Afghan” extras for a film shoot. For reference on how to get it right look at the realistic pirate depictions in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips . Barkhad Abdi and Barkhad Abdirahman were authentic and believable in their roles as Somali pirates, in no small part because they are from Somalia.
Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor is not a total failure. The audience in the theater spontaneously applauded when the credits rolled, so it got their attention. But it isn’t the authentic and horrifying insight into Long Range Surveillance and Marcus Luttrell’s incredible book that I had hoped for.