SEALs on the silver screen

by Michael Cochrane
Posted 1/15/14, 09:53 am

Lone Survivor, the new movie based on Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 memoir about an ill-fated 2005 operation in Afghanistan, is the latest film to collaborate with the military to depict a more realistic portrayal of the Navy’s Special Forces. 

The film opens like a recruitment video, with documentary footage of intense SEAL training, and pays tribute to the SEALs: In messy, uncertain wars, they’re elite practitioners of precision. In the era of the superhero film, the Navy SEALs have inspired filmmakers as the real thing.

Director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg, who plays Luttrell in the film, worked in close collaboration with the warrior turned author. They faced significant pressure from the families of those who died, and active-duty SEALs, to faithfully render the soldiers’ experiences, in battle and in brotherhood.

The trend follows films like 2012’s Act of Valor, which used active-duty SEALs as “actors” and live-ammo sequences to portray a fictional covert mission; Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, about the SEAL Team 6 raid that killed Osama bin Laden; and Captain Phillips, which recreated the rescue of the kidnapped mariner by SEAL snipers. Tom Hanks’ most moving scene in Captain Phillips was improvised with a real-life Naval officer.

Such productions, though, have raised questions about collaborators disclosing too much.U.S. lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., claimed that too much information was shared with the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty, and many criticized the film for suggesting torture aided the hunt for bin Laden. Retired Army Lt. Gen. James B. Vaught argued that Act of Valor revealed too much about tactics. “Get the hell out of the media!” he implored. 

On the other hand, critics say Captain Phillips attempts to paint the SEALs in a rosy light. The film showed only a handful of the 19 shots that were fired on the three Somali pirates, and didn’t mention the $30,000 that went missing in the aftermath. 

But the military sees the movies as a chance to shape its image and ensure some degree of authenticity in depictions of its servicemen and women. Lone Survivor has largely drawn praise as a brutal ode to Navy SEALs and a faithful rendition of the moral confusion of combat.

Luttrell came away from his work on Lone Survivor with admiration for Berg and Wahlberg: “It’s all relative,” he said. “What I do for a living and what he does for a living is exactly the same. We both wake up in the morning, put out as hard as we can and then go to bed at night, hoping to see the next day.”

Despite a few Hollywood liberties, Luttrell praised the filmmakers for their faithfulness to reality.

“They took this under their wing and they worked with it and brought it to life from the pages in the book, from the blood on the mountain.” 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Michael Cochrane

Michael is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent. 

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