"Lone Survivor" slam leaves military families outraged at film critic

I loved “Lone Survivor,” and judging by the box office receipts, so did a whole lot of other people.  But film critics are not under any imperative to give it good reviews, no matter what they really think.  Even if they find its goals laudable, or respect the sacrifices of the soldiers depicted in the movie, they could still honestly express problems with the acting, direction, or other aspects of the movie.  Contrarian reviews can make for interesting reading.

Having said that, the savage review penned by Amy Nicholson of L.A. Weekly has stirred up a bit of controversy, as a number of military people and their families say they find her remarks offensive.  Right off the bat, the title of the review declares the movie “has too much violence and jingoism for its own good.”  Well, yes, as a matter of fact, the desperate mountain battle between those Navy SEALs and the Taliban was pretty rough.  Depicting it with paintball guns wasn’t going to work.  Does anyone who think “Lone Survivor” is gratuitously violent have a problem with the horrific violence and torture in “12 Years a Slave,” or was that just about right?

Charges of “jingoism” are usually the sign of a lazy reviewer with an axe to grind.  The words those SEALs passed between each other were not empty-headed rah-rah blather.  I have a suspicion any movie sympathetic to American troops is going to get lambasted as “jingoistic,” so I say jingo all the way.  

This is the passage that got Nicholson into the most trouble:

These four men were heroes. But these heroes were also men. As the film portrays them, their attitudes to the incredibly complex War on Terror, fought hillside by bloody hillside in the Afghan frontier with both U.S. and Taliban forces contributing to an unconscionably high civilian body count, were simple: Brown people bad, American people good. When the guys debate whether to kill the three goat herders who’ve stumbled onto their hiding place — a dilemma that, morality aside, could have been solved if any of them had recalled that middle school logic problem about the fox, the chicken, the feed, and the too-small boat — Foster grabs an unarmed teenager by the face and insists, “That’s death. Look at death.” And when the firefight starts, he bellows, “You can die for your country — I’m going to live for mine.”

We’re meant to cheer, not that anyone in my theater did. But there will be audiences who do, and I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable with what they’re cheering for. This is death. Look at death.

That’s pure B.S., and suggests this “film critic” was barely paying attention to the movie at all.  She was probably busy thumbing the first draft of her review into her cell phone while film was still rolling.

Leaving aside her smarmy assurances that she could easily have solved the problem that led the SEALs into ambush (I’m all in favor of dropping her in the mountains of Afghanistan with a rifle, supplies, and maybe a crack team of three other L.A. critics, if she wants to try her hand at counter-insurgency) the entire point of the story is that they do not simply view “brown people” as bad.  They wouldn’t have had much of a problem if they did.  The movie goes out of its way to praise the good Afghans, right into the epilogue text.  

Incidentally, surviving SEAL Marcus Luttrell still keeps in touch with Mohammed Gulab, the Pashtun who stepped forward to save him from the Taliban.  Gulab was in Washington for a visit when Luttrell hosted a screening of “Lone Survivor” at the Newseum.  That doesn’t sound like “brown people bad” thinking to me.

The whole review reads like a mixture of pent-up frustration at the Afghanistan war, and half-baked snark at a movie the critic had decided to hate before the first frame rolled.  I notice that after Nicholson started taking heat from military families, she tried to cover herself by dropping a link to a Slate fact-checking of the movie, which clearly does have some Hollywood embellishments, most significantly the final battle at the Afghan village.  

But fact-checking is not the aspect of her review that produced the angry response; the only thing she really does along those lines is repeat as fact the highly disputed contention that only ten Taliban fighters were actually involved in the ambush.  (If she’d read the “debunking” material she relied upon for that assertion a bit more carefully, she’d have seen there were supposed to be militia forces augmenting that core Taliban group, even in the most skeptical efforts to whittle down the number of Taliban.  It’s true that the number of fighters has varied in various tellings of the story, but the military’s official citations and the after-action reports put the figure at somewhere between 25 and 50, with due allowances for the difficulty of counting them during an intense firefight.  The movie doesn’t count them off, but there seem to be more than fifty of them.)

What made so many readers angry was the overall tone of the review.  There were surely ways it could have been written less offensively.  Perhaps it’s difficult to separate one’s feelings about real-world events from cinematic depictions – can you write with wholehearted approval about a well-made film that makes a point you strongly disagree with?  Conversely, can you objectively criticize the flaws of a movie if you really love its subjects, and what it’s trying to say about them?

I’m not surprised to hear Nicholson’s account that nobody in her L.A. audience applauded for “Lone Survivor.”  The funny thing is, I’m old enough to remember when every liberal in California and beyond assured us Afghanistan was the “good war” they enthusiastically supported fighting, and that’s why they hated the operation in Iraq so much.

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