Your Stupid Salon Thing of the Day provides what could be definitive proof that there’s some kind of outrage quota over there that all regular contributors to the site are required to meet. Andrew O’Hehir is nominally Salon’s movie critic; to his credit, he’s at times insightful and erudite in his reviews and if nothing else no one can argue that he isn’t passionate about film and film study. But every once in a while, he takes off his traditional critic’s hat — insofar as a critic is supposed to tell you whether a film is worth seeing or not based on an assessment of its quality rather than its politics — and replaces it with the big Social Justice Fighter dunce cap that Salon keeps over in the corner of the office at all times.
For a long time, hand-ringing and teeth-gnashing over the latest pop culture sensation to supposedly promote and glorify war and America’s military was strictly the beat of David Sirota, a guy who, as you know, manages to be such a perfect, serially ridiculous cliché of the liberal superintendent class that it feels like he was engineered in a lab somewhere in Burlington, Vermont. But with Sirota now having so many irons in the fires of outrage, Salon is turning more and more to O’Hehir to pick up the slack. Which brings us to his column today on Lone Survivor. If you’re nodding your head right now in recognition, that’s not surprising; the second this movie was released you could’ve practically slipped on the saliva drooling from the mouths of Salon’s writers and editors, who were just waiting to call it propaganda and war porn.
Thus, we have O’Hehir’s piece titled, “‘Lone Survivor’: A Pro-War Propaganda Surprise Hit,” subtitled, “Mark Wahlberg kills Taliban by the dozens in Hollywood’s first 2014 smash, a shameless war-porn spectacle.” And if you think the headline wrote itself, just wait until you dive into the actual article. (No, I’m not linking to it; feel free to seek it out on your own if you choose.)
You may already know that Lone Survivor is based on a book by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell that tells the story of an ill-fated mission into Afghanistan in 2005 that killed 19 members of the U.S. Special Forces, including all three of Luttrell’s SEAL teammates. Only an idiot would believe that every single thing that happens in the film actually happened that way in reality — it’s not a documentary — but O’Hehir’s issue isn’t with any liberties taken in terms of the story, but rather how the film portrays combat, the military members involved and, seemingly, the fact that it was made at all. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that while it honors those who died on the mission, it’s apolitical in terms of the necessity of the mission itself and there’s no way in hell it makes war look glorious or glamorous. It’s excessively violent and often undeniably heartbreaking, painting a very vivid picture not of why our highly trained special forces chose to fight in the first place, but how they can somehow go on fighting and why, once in battle beside men they consider their brothers, they’ll go on fighting in the name of getting them all home.
But of course that’s not how O’Hehir sees it:
Time and time again, we see Afghan fighters in “tribal gear” brought down with a single shot, Whack-a-Mole style. Boom! They’re gone. American soldiers, it appears, can be shot three times, five times, a dozen times without dying. No, that’s not true – eventually they do die, we all know it’s coming. And every time that happens, it’s an operatic, slo-mo Christlike agony, with sweat and bone and blood and bits of flying gristle, Chevrolet-commercial flashbacks to some comely wife waiting somewhere and closeups of Sears photo studio snapshots of the moppets whose dad is coming home in a body bag. Is it dramatically effective? Yeah, absolutely. But it also conveys the unmistakable impression that American suffering and death is qualitatively different and more profound than the death of some dudes from an Afghan village about whom we know nothing. With those guys, there is no possibility of grieving wives or children, or a complex back-story with many motivating factors. They just keep coming like ants for the Coca-Cola ham at the Fourth of July picnic, and keep getting squashed just as easily… (Lone Survivor is) trying to reclaim the discredited realm of the Iraq-Afghanistan conflicts as a zone for macho tragic fantasy, for the dream of American greatness. It’s trying to tell us that whatever we may think we think about what our country did over the past dozen years – this SEAL team was based at Bagram Air Force base, where some of the worst acts of CIA or military torture were committed – dying for the red, white and blue is still a holy enterprise. That people want to see a competent action picture in the depths of winter isn’t all that depressing, but the fact that they’re swallowing the disgusting symbolism of this one definitely is.
You know, when you’re asked to crank out piece after piece for an internet journalism machine that never stops, you occasionally wind up writing crap you don’t really believe in just because it fulfills an obligation. That’s a fact of life these days. Maybe this column can be filed away under that category for O’Hehir. It’s difficult to imagine anyone, even someone stridently anti-reactionary, banging out a polemic against something that attempts to both give us an idea what a real group of SEALs faced in a very real mission that went really wrong, and pay tribute to the people who fight for us, even if, occasionally, they shouldn’t have to fight.
It’s almost unfathomable, to say nothing of intellectually dishonest, that O’Hehir fails to mention the fact that what got the men portrayed in Lone Survivor killed was a moral choice to let civilians go; that an Afghan man was responsible for saving the life of Marcus Luttrell; that it’s the inhuman conditions SEALs go through in training, to say nothing of the body armor available to them, that allows them to continue fighting instead of going down “Whack-a-Mole style.” (That’s part of what the film attempts to make clear.) Yes, actually — our special forces are better warriors than the Taliban. And yes, while there’s little doubt that the fallen enemies of Lone Survivor — and the real Operation Red Wings — had lives of their own and, who knows, maybe some of them had no desire to be there, they were fighting for the Taliban. There’s no moral equivalency, and to argue that this film about Navy SEALs might have bothered to show the perspective of a Taliban fighter is ludicrous for a half-dozen reasons. If nothing else, it’s another argument of omission. Something Salon excels at.
Maybe I’m biased. My father is former Navy UDT — in other words, a SEAL. I hate to get all Colonel Nathan Jessup here, but we have an all-volunteer military in this country and somebody needs to step up and do the very difficult job that most of us would never in a million years even be able to do, much less undertake voluntarily. We shouldn’t by any means instinctively back the people making the decisions to send our men and women into battle, but we should usually back the men and women themselves, and whether Andrew O’Hehir agrees or not, there’s nothing wrong with showing these men and women some respect and with honoring their actions by making them appear noble, heroic, and larger-than-life in popular culture. The Navy SEALs are the best warriors in the world, and quite frankly I’m glad they’re on our side — even if I can’t always say I support what our government gets them into. And that’s what Lone Survivor is about: the fact that, for these men, while they may believe in what this country is supposed to stand for, in the end — in the thick of it — the real reason they go on is for the team fighting alongside them. Yes, there is actually honor in that. And it deserves respect.
But, you know — Salon.
Since we’re talking about a film critic maybe it’s best to end by paraphrasing the great Hans Gruber from Die Hard: You ask why people hate liberals — I give you Andrew. O. Hehir.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.