Marcus Luttrell, the former Navy SEAL whose deadly mission in Afghanistan has been turned into the film “Lone Survivor,” strides into a hotel room for an interview, trailed by his service dog, Mr. Rigby.
The tall, hulking, goateed Navy Cross recipient greets a journalist with a rock-hard grip, and nods to director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg, who plays him in the film. This is clearly not what he wants to be doing.
Based on Luttrell’s best-selling 2007 memoir, “Lone Survivor” is about a 2005 four-man operation in northeastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province that fell apart when a trio of goat herders stumbled upon the staked-out SEALs.
One of the SEALs portrayed in the film was 1998 Penn State graduate and Medal of Honor winner Lt. Michael P. Murphy, who died during the assault retold in the film.
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In addition to many honors and awards, Penn State’s senior class gift in 2011 was the veterans plaza named for Murphy. The Navy also named a Burke-class destroyer for Murphy.
After releasing the civilians and aborting the mission, the SEALs were quickly ambushed by the Taliban in a firefight that tumbled down a rocky gulch, killed Luttrell’s three fellow SEALs, left Luttrell badly injured and, in an attempted rescue, killed 16 more men.
“Lone Survivor,” which opens like a recruitment video with documentary footage of intense SEAL training, is the latest in a series of films that pays tribute to the Navy’s special forces: 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 genuine article.
Luttrell would rather not talk about any of it. He went along with “Lone Survivor” and wrote the book at the urging of his superiors. Compared to the actual events, the movie is no traumatic experience for Luttrell.
“I went through it in real life, so a movie about it isn’t going to affect me in any way,” says the 38-year-old Texan.
Hollywood and the American military are worlds apart. But “Lone Survivor” is a uniquely close collaboration, one in which Berg and Wahlberg (both producers) worked under significant pressure from the families of those who died and active-duty SEALs to faithfully render the soldiers’ lives, in battle and in brotherhood.
“I was at the screening when there were a hundred moms and dads of dead soldiers,” says Berg. “And I was at a screening where there were 500 active members of special operations, including Admiral (William) McRaven. And those are different. Because when those lights come up, those people are going to look you in the eye.”
Over the years, SEALs have been played by the likes of Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal and Demi Moore, and been a mainstay in video games (“Call of Duty,” “Metal Gear Solid”). But the movies, often in close consultation with the military, have come a long way since 1990’s “Navy SEALs,” with Charlie Sheen.
2012’s “Act of Valor” was acted out by active-duty SEALs and used live-ammo sequences to portray a fictional covert mission. Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” dramatized the most famous SEAL mission, the raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. The recent docudrama “Captain Phillips” recreated the rescue of the kidnapped mariner by SEAL snipers, with Tom Hanks’ most-moving scene improvised with a real-life Naval officer.
Such productions, though, have given rise to questions of accuracy and charges of propaganda.
U.S. senators, including Dianne Feinstein and John McCain, 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. “Captain Phillips” 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. Retired Army lieutenant general James B. Vaught argued that “Act of Valor” revealed too much about tactics: “Get the hell out of the media!” he implored.
But the military sees in the movies a chance to shape its image and insure some degree of authenticity in depictions of its service men and women. “Lone Survivor” has largely drawn praise as a brutal ode to Navy SEALs and a faithful depiction of the moral confusion of combat.
“For films like ‘Black Hawk Down’ and ‘Lone Survivor,’ the commonality is the notion that this is an important opportunity to set the record straight or at least to portray things as they believe they happened,” says Philip Strub, head of the Defense Department’s Film and Television Liaison Office.
It can make for a thorny mix of fictionalization, artist license and classification issues. Berg consulted frequently with military liaisons and the Navy Office of Information while writing the script.
“I read the after-action reports,” says Berg. “I looked at the autopsies. I went to Iraq. I met all these guys. We just followed the blue print that Latrell laid out in his book. We never set out to do something non-Hollywood or Hollywood. We just literally told the story.”
Says Wahlberg: “Everybody fell in line with what the goals were, what the agenda was and how high the standard was set by not only the SEAL team guys but their families. It was a lot of pressure, but everybody took a lot of pride in the fact that we were taking part in this thing.”
When the film, which expands nationally in theaters Friday, premiered at the AFI Festival in November, Wahlberg made emotional comments about actors who brag about military training for a movie.
“I was really talking about myself, because I’ve been guilty of it many times, talking about how hard I had to work,” says Wahlberg. “It’s nothing compared to what they do.”
But Luttrell emerged from “Lone Survivor” with admiration for Berg and Wahlberg: “It’s all relative,” he says. “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.”
“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.”