“Lone Survivor”: “Saving Private Ryan” for the Call of Duty Generation?

I tend to avoid reading reviews of movies I have not seen. I prefer to read what others have to say after I have my own opinion. However, sometimes the hype for a movie is inescapable, as is the case with Lone Survivor. I’ve heard from several people that it’s the next “Saving Private Ryan”.

When we view a movie we all bring our entire lives into that movie. A film about something personal to you will create more emotions than something that you have never dealt with. No one in my immediate family was involved with World War II but it is still a movie that I have quite a reaction to.

I don’t remember the year or how old I was at the time, only that I’m sure it was before I was 13, but I do remember the date. It was June 6th. My father called my brother and I into the living room and asked us what day it was. Sure, I knew what D-day was from my history classes at school, but I hadn’t bothered to remember the date. He explained what it was and told us that we were going to watch a movie.

At the time, I don’t think I understood exactly what the film meant and how what I was seeing was at one time real and not just a series of moving images on the TV in the living room. But, it set up a sort of ritual that took place every year for many years. Every June 6th, my father would call us into the living room ask what day it was. Every June 6th we watched “Saving Private Ryan.”

What hit me as I grew older was not only the realization of the horror of that day, but I also noticed that my father cried each time. My father was never one to hide his emotions but to see him crying while watching pain that happened over 50 years ago to men he never knew impacted me. To me, there has never been a more powerful bit of filmmaking than that opening scene and D-day portrayal in “Saving Private Ryan”.

Hearing praise such as I have with “Lone Survivor,” I was not sure that it would stand up to the emotional impact that “Saving Private Ryan” brings. As with any based on a true story movie, the context often has a lot to do with the perception of the film. We can see “Saving Private Ryan” in a light that is more than just men dying on a beach. June 6th, 1944 was a day that made heroes out of regular men and one that this country will always hail as one of its crowning victories. Fighting the Nazi threat is much different than the war of today.

The events in Afghanistan are much less clear cut, and it is not a war against a visible enemy. Today we are able to separate war from daily life compared to the days of WWII. Is “Lone Survivor” the new “Saving Private Ryan?” To me, no. However, this should not take away from a film that tells a story of bravery and heroism of not only American troops but also of some of the Afghan people.

“Lone Survivor” is primarily about four Navy SEALs, Marcus Luttrell, Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz and Matthew Axelson, serving in Afghanistan. This movie opens with real-life video of what these men go through in SEAL training. It is a reminder not only of the hell they went through to arrive in a lower circle, but also a reminder that this is their choice. “Lone Survivor” is more “Band of Brothers” and less “Behind Enemy Lines” as what matters is not really the mission but the bond shared by four SEALs in particular and how they deal with the descent into a hellish cat and mouse game.

Of course from the beginning, you know the ending and this movie never lets you forget that you have entered a war zone. A few times in this film, there is a lull in combat, as two characters carry out a conversation only for an RPG to explode and bring reality blaring back into frame. Just as you are lulled into a false sense of hope, it reminds you that this will not have a storybook ending.

We as an audience are brought into the circle of these SEALs in expected ways, but they are expected because they work. One is seen chatting with his wife, another agonizing over what his fiancé wants for a wedding present and what color different rooms of their home should be. It is the inevitably of their death that really brings us closer to these men. We tend think of the Special Forces as supermen who are solely focused on war and how to kill that we forget they too are human.

Yet, familiar tropes still exist such as the new guy who just wants to jump in to the action and the camaraderie that comes with being willing to fight and die for the man next to you. These may be tried and true methods of emotional manipulation but they work to create a group of men you care about. You want to see these men return safely even though we know from the onset that the reality is different.

Depicting war on screen is always a difficult proposition. No scene will ever muster the same emotional impact for someone who has never experienced combat. It seems almost counter intuitive that we strive to create scenes in a film that recreate the horrors of war. Over the course of their fight, we see the four men being whittled down until finally they reach the point where they cannot continue.

These men may be strong, but there comes a time where you must admit that you are human. It’s tough to see them realize that their buddy has just died as they must continue to retreat to have any hope at survival. Not only are the Taliban after them, but they must compete with mountainous terrain that complicates their plans. We may not know the true hell that being on that mountain brought, but “Lone Survivor” makes you aware of just how much of a hell it must have been.

 The sound is not usually something that stands out in a Hollywood film to me because at this level there are rarely glaring issues, but the sound in this film stands out. There is a good portion of the movie where there is no music and it is only the sounds that you see occurring on screen. This passage of time brings you into the film and makes you feel like you are there instead of drawing you out and making you aware that you are in a movie. When the music finally does come in to make an emotional point, it is soft and barely noticeable above the din of the action.

“Lone Survivor” is a film that brings everything together and creates an atmosphere that is electric. The knowledge of what lies ahead is constantly balanced with the wish for these men to survive. It is a film that only comes along every so often and reminds us of what the men and women in the military go through. Should a movie have to remind of us this? No, but in a world as disconnected as ours can be at times, it is a reality.

In the end, this movie is about one thing — remembering the men who serve in any branch of the military and their conviction to fight and possibly die for something they believe in. I know for myself, and many others, we do not possess this strength. So say thank you to a service member or veteran and hope that someday there might not be a need for men and women to volunteer to parish.