Back in the golden days of classic Greek theater, when Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were ruining their health and tearing their hair out dealing with narcissistic actors who complained they didn’t have enough lines, or it would be better if their character did it this way, or couldn’t they move here instead, there was a tradition of violence taking place off-stage. This was done, in part, because the Greeks of the classical era knew very well that nothing they could show would ever be as appalling as what the audience could imagine.
Fast forward roughly two and a half millennia to, oh, let’s say the days of Simon & Simon, when television censors demanded all violence be sanitized, made tasteful and decorous, so that a man might be beaten, stabbed, shot, and thrown off a rooftop, but when the camera closed in on his dead body, all the audience saw was a delicate little trickle of stage blood from one corner of his primly closed mouth.
Now fast forward again roughly two and a half decades to the over-the-top movies of, oh, let’s say director Quentin Tarantino and producer Harvey Weinstein, where mindless and meaningless violence is glorified almost as an independent art form in and of itself. (Remember Steve Martin as the producer of ultra-violent movies in Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon? “Where are the brains? When he shoots him the script calls for brains splattering against the window. Where are the goddamn brains!? Am I the only one who’s trying to be true to the script here?”)
I am not a fan of the Quentin Tarantino/Harvey Weinstein oeuvre. In part, I find their movies moronic, and in part, having been shot twice, I have no need to be titillated by their grotesqueries. (To be fair to both of them: I briefly attended an acting class where Quentin Tarantino was a student, back in the early eighties, and found him highly intelligent and quite funny in a quirky sort of way. And Harvey Weinstein, in spite of his tasteless and morally bankrupt hypocrisy in making a fortune exploiting gratuitous violence with guns and now vowing to destroy the NRA for being violence-mongers—never mind the complete inaccuracy and dishonesty of that assessment—has actually made some delightful and life-affirming movies, notably Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient, and Chocolat.) Nothing shown on film can ever be as horrifying as either reality or imagination. Do us all a favor, please: don’t sanitize it and don’t glorify it. Don’t even show it. Take it off-stage.
Which brings me to quite the most violent film I have seen in a long time, possibly ever, a movie so graphically violent that my friend, screenwriter Dan Bronson, simply couldn’t watch it. The difference is that this is violence for a very specific cinematic purpose, violence seen from the point of view of the men committing it and to whom it is committed. It is violence portrayed in a way that vividly brings home an understanding of the PTSD returning vets have to deal with.
Lone Survivor is based on the non-fiction book of that name, written by the eponymous Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell, played in the movie by Mark Wahlberg. The plot, very briefly, revolves around a four-man Seal team sent out to kill a Taliban leader. In a complete fluke, two Afghan boys and an old man, herding goats in the mountains above their village, stumble onto the team, and the characters in the movie, like the real-life members of the team, are thrust into the greatest moral dilemma any man can face, a moral dilemma worthy of Sophocles or Aeschylus or Euripides. There is no question about the loyalties of the three Afghans; even with no understanding of a word they say, it is clear they will run back to their village and alert the Taliban. The mission has been jeopardized, and the only possibility for the Navy Seals to even have a minute chance of success, or even to survive, is to kill or neutralize the civilians. They quickly distill their choices down to killing the villagers outright; tying them to trees, with the certain knowledge they will freeze to death during the night or be eaten alive by wolves; or letting them go.
From a purely historical perspective, I found this to be the single best moment in any movie I have seen in memory. How do ordinary men make such decisions? It is war, and in all wars from the beginning of recorded history until very recently, the rules have been very simple: there are no rules. We want this land, wealth, whatever, and we simply kill or enslave everyone who stands between us and our goal. I have an unnerving memory of a national hero from World War Two, a man whose name is now a household word for all we revere in our warriors, telling me once how he bombed a town in Germany (we bombed without concern for civilians back then, remember?) and the next day, knowing the survivors would be burying their dead, he went back and strafed the funeral procession, killing the women and old men and children who had escaped his bombing.
Today, war has changed. There are rules of engagement, ludicrous Marquis of Queensbury rules for fighting against people who still fight by the old, bloody non-rules of Tamerlane and Attila and Genghis Khan. We are supposed to surgically destroy the soldiers while simultaneously winning the hearts and minds of the widows and orphans we create. It is perhaps the stupidest philosophy of war ever known. And yet…
And yet, what would you have done?
One of the things Lone Survivor does is to put you there on that mountain, with the means, the motive, and the opportunity for doing what should be done, what must be done, not merely for the sake of the mission, but for the sake of life itself, and asking you if you have the stomach for it. Could you kill someone to save your life? It’s not an abstract question. It’s not a question of death at a tastefully sanitized distance, from the cockpit of a plane, or from a sniper’s position eight hundred or a thousand meters away. It’s not death in the unambiguous throes of combat, killing the man who is lunging at you with your death in his hands. It’s not a moral question of saving the lives of your wife and children as the door bursts open in the night. It is playing God in the most agonizing possible way, Abraham cutting his own son’s throat, the boy’s eyes looking up in disbelief, incomprehension, three Isaacs helpless before you on a mountainside in Afghanistan. Watching, you know what the smart thing is, as do the ordinary young men who have been put in this position. You know very well that to let those three Isaacs live is to seal your own fate, to make your own death an immanent and gruesome reality.
What would you have done?
The rest of the movie is devoted to the frantic and hopeless attempts of these young men to stay alive, and it concludes with the equally random fluke of Marcus Luttrell’s survival. And at the very end, there is a montage sequence of the actual soldiers who were killed on that mountain, real-life snapshots and a video of one of them from their civilian lives, with beloved mothers and fathers and wives and children, a happy dog who will never again see the man who makes his life, and that montage brought Darleen and me to tears.
What would I have done?