Lone Survivor

Posted on January 9, 2014 at 6:00 pm

lone survivorDirector Peter Berg is as good as it gets when it comes to putting a particular kind of male chemistry on screen. If he was writing instead of filming, he would dunk his pen in testosterone, beard stubble, and sweat.  Whether it is the small town Texas football community of “Friday Night Lights,” the disastrous bachelor party of “Very Bad Things,” or the aliens and explosions of the under-rated “Battleship,” Berg understands the rhythms of guy-talk that circles around the still core of pure masculinity. There are nearly as many f-words per minute in this film as in the record-breaking “Wolf of Wall Street.” But there the language was used to show off, to convey bravado, for shock and awe. Here the heirs to a long tradition of colorful military argot almost have air quotes around the language. It’s almost a mirror image; on Wall Street, they use bad words to seem tougher. These Navy Seals use bad language with irony — they know that no words can be as tough as they really are or express what they have really seen and done. For them, the inadequacy of even the most provocative language is the joke.

This is the true story of a disastrous Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan, based on the book Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell. We know from the title and from the earliest moments of the movie that Luttrell, played by Mark Wahlberg, will be the only one still around at the end of the movie.  And so, we steel ourselves, knowing we will spend just enough time with the characters to become attached to them before they are sent off on a doomed mission to take out a ‘bad guy” in Afghanistan and start getting killed.

As in most military dramas, real and fictional, there are archetypal characters.  There’s a new addition and a hardened vet.  And there is Luttrell, a medic, a witness, like Ishmael in Moby Dick the survivor who carries the stories of the others with him.

This is not “action violence,” with super-effective weapons on our side and endless just-misses from the enemy, along with exciting explosions and instant death.  This is messy, dirty, blood-gushing and agonizing wartime violence.  Berg pays tribute to these men by showing us that their courage, dedication, and skill were unparalleled and the tragic stupidity of war presented them with a series of awful choices and unthinkable danger.  At one point, when they have been spotted by (apparent) civilians, including a young boy, they stand there and discuss their options — let them go and risk having them tell the enemy where they are, tie them up and risk having them die of predators or starvation, or kill them, preserving the mission but putting into question the larger issues, from what happens when it gets reported on CNN and what we are fighting for if that is who we’ve become.  That may be the most heartbreaking moment of the film — until the end, when we see the real faces of the brave young men who died.  They knew what they owed us.  Perhaps this movie will help remind us what we owe them.

Parents should know that this movie includes constant wartime peril and violence with many characters injured and killed, children in peril, guns, explosions.  There are very disturbing and graphic images of characters being hit with bullets, many sad deaths, as well as constant very strong and sometimes crude language.

Family discussion: What elements of the training and briefings were important to helping the SEALS do their job?  What more did they need? Who was right in the discussion of what to do when they were “compromised” in being spotted by civilians?

If you like this, try: “Act of Valor,” with real-life Navy SEALS playing fictional versions of themselves and “We Were Soldiers,” about the early days of the American involvement in the Vietnam War.



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Based on a book Based on a true story War

The Real Story: Captain Phillips and the Somali Pirates

Posted on October 10, 2013 at 8:00 am

This week’s release of “Captain Phillips” is based on the real-life story of the 2009 capture of an American merchant ship by Somali pirates.  The title character, played by Tom Hanks, was kidnapped by the pirates and held for ransom.    Captain Richard Phillips was rescued by the Navy Seals after sharpshooters killed three of the four pirates.

Barkhad-Abdi-PirateThe leader of the pirates is played by Barkhad Abdi, a Somali immigrant who moved to Minnesota with his family when he was seven, in his first role as an actor.  In an interview, he explained that he was selected for the role following a casting call that included more than 700 other men who wanted to be in the film.  He trusted director Paul Greengrass to present the Somali characters without demonizing them.

One of his quotes, he said was just a simple man that was in a situation that was bigger than him. Because this piracy thing is basically international organized crime. The people that actually benefit out of it are not even in Somalia; they’re somewhere in Europe or America or some other country. And it’s a big corporation. And the people that actually take the risk don’t even take much.

He talked about how he put himself in the frame of mind of his character, a desperate young man.

That was important to me. Because as a person, I was born in Somalia, you know? I left Somalia when I was seven years old, but I witnessed a whole year in a war. I witnessed the war’s beginning, which was really extraordinarily crazy. Just the same neighborhood that you were born and you grow and the same good people. That’s all you’ve seen in the world — and just torn to a disaster overnight: killing and rape and all this unbelievable stuff going on.

I was lucky enough to have parents that took me out from country to country and go to school and learn how to be a better person. But, I used a lot of imagination. Like, what if that was me? What if I didn’t have the same parents I have? What if my parents would have passed away? I mean, this would have been about me. I know exactly the situation he’s in, because Somalia didn’t have a country for the last 24 years. There’s no jobs; there’s no hope. And besides the fact that all these guys become millionaires right in front of you — people that you know. That’s enough motivation to take your chance fully. You’re either going to live good or you’re going to die trying.

Greengrass kept his lead actors apart until they were filming their scenes.

It was really a great idea, because it’s not an easy task coming on as just a crazy guy that’s taking over and being so mean to someone that you know and you admire, you know? So it was good that I hadn’t met him.

A Captain's DutyThe movie is very true to the real story, as Richard Phillips described it in his book, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea.  It describes the takeover of the ship by four young pirates and their insistence on a ransom of millions of dollars.  Captain Phillips protected his crew and was taken hostage for four days of abuse and threats.  President Obama said after it was over, “I share the country’s admiration for the bravery of Captain Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew. His courage is a model for all Americans.”  Some members of the crew have filed lawsuits against the shipping company, alleging that their negligence put the crew at risk by going too close to the Somali coast, despite warnings to stay at least 600 miles away.  But there is no question that Captain Phillips’ courage and determination kept his crew safe at the risk of his own life and the extraordinary skill of the Navy Seals is what kept him alive.

Slate provides further information about Somali pirates.  The incident in this film was one of over 200 in 2009.

In the film, Muse briefly mentions foreign vessels coming to take away the fish off the Somali coast. Viewers new to the subject may not know what to make of these remarks, but they refer to what many observers believe was a precipitating cause of the uptick in Somali piracy roughly 20 years ago. When the regime of longtime Somali dictator Siad Barre collapsed in 1991, the country was plunged into ongoing violence between rival armed groups and left without a central government capable of defending the country’s economic interests—including the “exclusive economic zone” off the Somali coast. Fleets from Europe and Asia quickly moved in, depleting the supply of fish.

As an African Development Bank report from 2011 put it, “Fishermen, dismayed at the inability of the central government to protect their country’s EEZ, and at the number of foreign fishing vessels illegally exploiting their traditional fisheries, took matters into their own hands. Initially arming themselves to chase off the illegal foreign fishing vessels, they quickly realized that robbing the vessels was a lucrative way to make up for lost income. Seeing their success, land based warlords co-opted some of the new pirates, organizing them into increasingly sophisticated gangs.”

The efforts of a combined task force to combat piracy and changing circumstances in Somalia have led to a sharp reduction in the number of ships hijacked and held for ransom.  However, for other reasons, Navy Seals were back fighting in Somalia this week.

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The Real Story

Interview: ‘Act of Valor’

Posted on February 24, 2012 at 11:24 am

Copyright Relativity 2012



Act of Valor” features active duty Navy SEALS re-enacting some of their most dangerous missions.  The situations are fictional, but the tactics and operations are real.  So is the ammunition.  Instead of blanks and squibs, the SEALS used live ammo, just as they do in their training exercises.  I was privileged to spend a day discussing the film with some of the people behind the film and an extraordinary group of business leaders and policy makers at an event conducted by Ideas Salon.  We discussed the film’s lessons on leadership, inspiration, communication, and integrity.

I also spoke to producer Max Leitman and co-director Scott Waugh of Bandito Brothers about making the film and what they learned from it.  We began with some reflections on the Ideas Salon experience.  “Relativity put it together because they thought it would spark some really great discussions,” Leitman said.  Waugh agreed. “It was great to really hear people pull different things out of the film that really sparked conversation. I feel like these guys are a true representation of leadership, and it was really interesting to really dissect how they operate, to relate that to the civilian side, the private sector, and corporations, and all those things. It was really fascinating for me, too.”  Leitman added, ” I think part of making a film is you work so hard on something — it’s sort of like having a baby; you put it out into world. It’s really interesting to see just how smart and fascinating people will react and see how your baby’s doing. That was just a thrill for us”

I told them that what fascinated me most in the film was the way the SEALS communicated with each other — the economy, precision, effectiveness, and sheer variety of the forms of communication.  “I think what we were really after in the film was the authenticity of how their com talk is and how they speak to each other,” Waugh said.  “We refused to dilute that process and have them speak in layman’s terms. So all of the acronyms are true and authentic. Sometimes the audience can get a little bit lost because they are not in the know, but in general they can follow it and they can appreciate that this is exactly how this guys communicate with each other, whether it’s through hand signals or through the radios.”  Leitman added, “I think that, moving away from the actual mode of communication, there’s a great discipline that comes from having that group of guys trust you to tell their story. I think that they are just so honest, so straightforward, and authentic, that we all feel like we’re better people and try to live up to the standard than we have seen acted out in the last 4 years, by them in their personal lives. To me, that’s just a great lesson for how everybody can continue to live their lives and be better people.”

I asked how the men who face the direst physical danger every day felt about being in front of the camera and had to repeat scenes over and over again.  Waugh answered.  “We were augmenting their training, so they were in that mode already. We purposely really tried to film in a way to stay out of their way, and they were very good just being themselves. They do their job and they do it with such precision and such repetition that with us in front of them, they was really no distraction for them, and they were just truly incredible men and how they operate with us around them was awesome.  You’ve got to remember when they train, they do evolutions even 15 to 20 evolutions of the same operation. That’s how they train, so we would get multiple takes on certain situations.  The toughest part of the shoot was working on water, because you’re dealing with a moving mass that you can’t control and we are out trying to really find and locate the submarines. To me, it was always the most fascinating complicating piece of business because we had our own air assets and boat assets and they did as well. All those moving parts, getting the GPS coordinates, the time and location the morning of was really complicated, and I think Max and I are both very proud of what we are able to accomplish, with such limited knowledge prior to shooting it.” Waugh talked about working with the Navy to make sure that the movie was authentic but not revealing enough to give away confidential information.  “They were so involved during the process that we never actually filmed anything that was not supposed to be filmed. So they did do a heavy scrub with every single frame that was shot afterwards. The greatest reward we had was after the scrub, nothing needed to be subtracted.”

“The most important thing we learned from the SEALs was the ability to adapt and change with your surroundings,” Waugh continued. “With us, with film-making, you usually have something set in your head before you get to the set. And when those things change on you, it usually can rattle you, and you think ‘That’s not the way I see it!’ In the field teams, they are constantly doing that, that’s because that’s the way life is. We feel that we’ve learnt so much from the field platoon that we’ve modeled Bandito Brothers and our film-making style around that approach.”  Leitman added, “We started our company about 5 years ago, and I would say the best way to start a company is to go into business with the SEALs. You just learn a lot from them. And it recalls what you said at the Ideas Salon when you were talking about the secondary and tertiary extract. That is really the take away from who those guys are, adapting and having a plan and then making it work.”

Waugh talked about what led the SEALs to approach them about making a film. “They wanted their story authentically told.  They have been misrepresented for so long that they really wanted the world just to know who they are and the sacrifice that involves being a Navy SEAL. Not only what they go through, but most importantly, what their wives and the children didn’t go through. They really wanted that told properly.  My hope is that regardless of what branch the military you’re in, that people who see this film will take away that there’s so many men and women that are down range sacrificing for our freedom. That shouldn’t be taken lightly, regardless of your political opinion. We should respect those and honor those that do. When we see them coming back home, we should not only thank them for their service, but we should also open up our arms to embrace them into getting back into the civilian world.”



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Behind the Scenes Directors Interview

Act of Valor

Posted on February 23, 2012 at 6:07 pm

The Navy SEALS approached the Bandito Brothers film-makers about telling their story, years before they became headline heroes by finding and killing Osama Bin Laden.  After spending time with the SEALS and learning about their extraordinary missions and their extraordinary devotion to their families, their country, and each other, it became clear that even the biggest stars in Hollywood could never do them justice.  And so they made “Act of Valor,” a thrilling action/adventure film starring active duty U.S. Navy SEALS re-enacting some of their most dangerous missions, with live ammunition.  Every person in uniform you see in the film is currently serving in the U.S. military.  More than once, shooting had to shut down so that the SEALS could get back to work.

The story is pure fiction but the situations are real and the filming includes footage of training missions with live ammunition.  According to the story, a CIA agent has been kidnapped and is being tortured.  Terrorists are trying to enter the United States to detonate suicide bombings that will murder thousands of civilians.  The SEALS get little notice and less background briefing and they have to save the day, using a combination of the most cutting edge technology in weapons and communication and the oldest and most basic forms of technology (hand-to-hand combat) and communication (hand signals and just knowing each other and the mission objectives).  Most of all, they rely on training, integrity, and trust.  What they don’t rely on is anything going as originally planned.  In one exciting chase, the bad guys are closing in and shooting at them with automatic weapons and one of the SEALs has been critically injured.  What is even more fascinating than the pulse-pounding action is the way the Seals keep adapting their escape plan and updating their team with remarkable economy and precision.  “This will be a hot extract,” they say crisply into the walkie-talkies as they return fire.  “Moving to tertiary extract,” they continue.  All may be chaos around them, but you get the feeling that they could keep going with another 20 thought-through options for pick-up if the first 19 can not work.  “Prepare for a bigger fight than you were expecting,” they are advised in one operation, but the SEALs are always ready.  One of them quotes the moving words of the Native American leader Tecumseh that concludes, “When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.”

The guys (their names are not used for security reasons) are not actors, but that just adds to to sense that we are watching a documentary, albeit a documentary that sometimes plays like a first-person shooter game.  When we see the SEALs with their families and with each other, it is clear that there is not an actor in the world who could convey the humility and honor that is fundamental to their natures.

The storyline is thin and generic but there is plenty of drama in the operation of the missions, each like a movie of its own and well staged to make us feel at the center of the action.  Country greats like Trace Adkins, Wynonna Judd, Sugarland, and Lady Antebellum provide a stirring soundtrack.  We see operations on land, sea, and in the air.  There are fights and shoot-outs but one of the most mesmerizing scenes is all talk as the master interrogator shows the master criminal just enough respect to keep him cooperating, making clear how much power he has over the other man’s life to make that cooperation meaningful.  “I’d rather bring a gun to a knife fight than be interrogated by him,” one of the Seals says proudly.  The support of their families and, at least in one case, a family history of sacrifice creates a clarity of priorities that creates a context for excellence.  In a world where ambiguity and partisanship make it hard to find heroes, the biggest thrills in this film come not from the shoot-outs but from seeing real-life commitment, courage, and what valor truly means.



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Action/Adventure Based on a true story War
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