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Arts & Entertainment Presented by Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts

Cinema in Focus

Cinema in Focus: ‘Lone Survivor’

Based on the autobiographical story by a Navy SEAL who was the only survivor of a military operation in Afghanistan

By Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman | @CinemaInFocus |

3 Stars — Thought-provoking

War movies are as much a part of the history of Hollywood as is Charlie Chaplin or The Sound of Music. Much of our early 20th century culture was shaped by cowboy and Indian films that depicted righteous settlers fighting off the always-mean Native American warrior. By the 1950s, war movies had transitioned to honoring returning heroes from World War II. It wasn't until after the turmoil of the Vietnam era that movies started focusing on internal failures of courage, policy or purpose, most notably with Francis Ford Coppola's landmark film Apocalypse Now (1979).

The Lone Survivor is a mixture of internal failures being dealt with by brave soldiers who are a true band of brothers. Based on the 2007 autobiographical book of the same name by Marcus Luttrell, the film depicts the failed U.S. Navy SEALs mission Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan, in which a four-man SEAL team was tasked to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah.

Luttrell was the only man to survive this 2005 mission, and is played in the movie by Mark Wahlberg.

This very graphic depiction of the horrors of war includes the moral and ethical dilemmas that a soldier faces in the field. The morality of war, especially from a western, Christian perspective, requires surgical elimination of those causing the armed conflict without harming innocent bystanders. In the heat of battle, though, that isn't always an easy choice to discern.

What do you do when saving one innocent person's life puts at risk all of the lives of those who are closest to you? Or, are the lives of your fellow soldiers more valuable than the lives of villagers who just happen to come across your path? When the war is over, how will history or the merciless media tell your story? This is the core message of the film.

Although filmed in the mountains of New Mexico, the film takes you realistically through the agonizing hand-to-hand combat and tension of fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan and ultimately into a friendly village at the base of the mountains. Luttrell, as the lone survivor who is deeply wounded, is dragged out of the mountains by a group of villagers to safety. In the film, this leads to a heroic fight between the villagers and the Taliban, although in Luttrell's autobiography this doesn't happen with the same level of drama.

There is little doubt that most people will come away from this movie with a lot of questions. What is the moral or ethical choice to be made in war about who lives or dies? What does it mean to sacrifice so many good lives for a cause that in a few short years will be forgotten? When the Americans pull out of Afghanistan, will this sacrifice seem irrelevant? How do you explain all of this to the relatives, parents or children of these brave and capable soldiers?

None of these questions are answered in Lone Survivor, but you do come to understand how the intensity of the training of a Navy SEAL binds them together into an emotionally charged family intent on protecting each other as much as protecting the country that sent them.

These are the best and the brightest of our nation's warriors, and in an age when we are no longer fascinated with the glory of men going to the moon, these are today's heroes. We need to honor them in every way possible, while at the same time holding ourselves accountable for the moral and ethical imperatives that are necessary to build a strong foundation for our country's policies and presence.


» When we take the best and brightest of our young people and send them to fight for us, what do you think this does both to them and to us?

» The surgical precision required to fight a "just war" that does not kill innocent people is difficult. Do you think this makes having a just war a possibility or not?

» Against all odds, the lone survivor of this effort is able to tell his story and reveal the nature of their assignment. How do you think such an account as this will change our view of war?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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