Under the Radar

Lone Survivor, Hollywood and the Insufficiency of True Heroism


Lone Survivor

"Lone Survivor" was a terrible movie - from at least one perspective, within at least one context. Was it a well-made film? Well acted? Good production values? A respectful homage to the sacrifices of the men who were there? A fantastic recruiting tool? Our minions have debated this ceaselessly. Mad Duo Chris took issue, and has a genuine question for filmmakers at the end.  -- Mad Duo


Lone Survivor, Hollywood and the Insufficiency of True Heroism

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

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 in Air Force helicopters 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 near the end. 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?


Chris Hernandez (Mad Duo Chris, seen below on patrol in Afghanistan) is part of the writing-editorial team at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of nearly two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles - the  Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley and Proof of Our Resolve. You can read more of his work on Breach-Bang-Clear, the The Statesman, on his blog and on Iron Mike Magazine.

Mad Duo, Breach-Bang-CLEAR!

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