“Lone Survivor” is a passion play for America’s civic religion

Lone Survivor, Peter Berg’s film about the doomed 2005 Navy SEAL mission Operation Red Wings, was a pop-cultural phenomenon. The film made $100 million in less than two weeks of release, and Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze posted a picture of a theater in Texas that had cancelled screenings of other films due to the popularity of Lone Survivor. The film’s reception by eggheaded Coastal Elites was more mixed, but critical reviewers were nearly unanimous in drawing comparisons to Mel Gibson’s 2004 megahit The Passion of the Christ. The comparison was made so often that in a piece titled “5 reasons the Left is hating Lone Survivor,” one exasperated Patriot said “enough with the The Passion of the Christ references already…nearly every negative review of Lone Survivor brings up Gibson’s epic.”

The similarities between both films are deeper than just the onscreen violence, though. The comparison is ubiquitous partially because so few films are so devoted to visiting excruciating violence on their heroes and gazing on it in such detail. However, the film’s reception and the cultural space it occupies are totally different than in the cases of other violent films. Lone Survivor and The Passion share more in common than just violence: both are martyrdom narratives. Lone Survivor is received and defended with the same vehemence as a movie like Gibson’s crucifixion epic because the military occupies a quasi-religious space in the American national imagination.

Lone Survivor opens with a credit sequence over real footage of BUD/S training, and takes about half an hour before the discovery of the four-man SEAL team deep in hostile territory that precipitates the film’s brutal battle sequence. During the SEALs’ fight for survival, the four are shot with Kalashnikovs, blasted by rocket-propelled grenades, repeatedly forced to leap off cliffs, and endure bodily harm that most people can’t fathom. The sequence and the real-life events it recalls are meant to impress upon the audience valor, sacrifice, and great physical courage (It’s also meant to recall the event that precipitated America’s posture of endless war. Berg has told interviewers “The cliff jumps were reminiscent of September 11, jumping out of the towers.”).

However, Lone Survivor isn’t unique in its depiction of graphic violence. Plenty of films—12 Years a Slave, for instance—depict gruesome, durational violence. 2013’s Academy Award winner for best picture is undoubtedly brutal. The violence includes a group lynching, rape, a long sequence in which the main character must stand atop his toes to avoid being hanged, and an even longer sequence in which the slave Patsey has the flesh whipped off her back. It’s “visceral, graphic, [unrelenting,] and so very, very bloody.” However, neither 12 Years a Slave nor any other movie in memory has earned all these comparisons to The Passion.

Lone Survivor shares with The Passion a unique symbolic resonance, not just a visual one. The violence in Mel Gibson’s pre-Vatican II opus is the violence of religious martyrdom. The signifiers of Christ’s martyrdom are unique—the crown of thorns, the Via Dolorosa, the crucifixion—but the narrative is universal. In Shi’a Islam, for instance, the martyrdom of Imam Ali commemorated during the Holy Day of Ashura has its own vocabulary but shares the same tropes. Ali and his retinue chose to face an insurmountable force, were brutalized and martyred, and in death provide us an example for how best to live. Lone Survivor resonates because it tells a secular martyrdom story beatifying the sacrifice of its military heroes.

Critics missed that Lone Survivor mirrors The Passion not only with its long scenes of violence, but that the hero’s suffering culminates with a resurrection. When Wahlberg’s Lutrell is rescued by sympathetic Afghans, they clean him and dress him in a clean shalwar kameez. Dressed in white, he is brought back to life, having experienced a secular resurrection. In case there is any doubt of Lutrell’s Christ-like conquest of death, Wahlberg says in the film’s coda “I died up on that mountain. There is no question, a part of me will forever be up on that mountain dead, as my brothers died.”

The film ends as it begins, with real-life footage—this time of the 19 JSOC operators who sacrificed their lives during Operation Red Wings. Like any religious martyrdom story, the audience is meant to appreciate that the events depicted onscreen happened for their sake. Few other exceptionally violent films are trying to accomplish the same goal. In the case of 12 Years a Slave, the viewer is supposed to reflect on the horrors of American slavery, and audiences received it like that. As horrific as the onscreen brutality was, millions of Americans didn’t leave theaters thinking that they owed their salvation or their freedom to the suffering of Solomon Northup or Patsey.

The violence of The Passion and Lone Survivor is meant to inspire a religious sense of awe and reverence for the films’ savior-figures. Picking up on the quasi-religious message, one right-wing critic titled his review “Lone Survivor: a part of Marcus Luttrell died so that we can see how to live.” For his part, Berg has been clear that the film was meant to inspire respect for individuals who amount to secular saviors: to honor “men and women that are willing to put themselves between us and legitimate evil… so that we can live our lives”

The fact that Berg is invoking the sacrifice of The Troops is why Lone Survivor works. 12 Years a Slave and other notoriously bloody films don’t share the military-worshipping core of Berg’s film that has earned Lone Survivor its reception. Berg has made a film about martyrdom for America’s civic religion: veneration of the military. The First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a state religion, so the common perception is that America lacks one. However, we do have an institution that we treat as sacrosanct, to which all Americans must demonstrate fealty and against whose holy precepts they dare not speak ill.

The Blaze took the lead in attacking journalists who failed to show proper reverence for the sacrifices of SEAL Team 10. Both CNN’s Jake Tapper and LA Weekly film critic Amy Nicholson experienced legions of online trolls attacking them for their perceived lack of deference. Tapper and Nicholson were merely the latest apostates to commit the sin of questioning The Troops and the military that Americans trust over all other institutions.

As with any sin, the transgression requires penitence. In 2012, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes questioned the practice of axiomatically labeling The Troops heroes during an episode of his show. For questioning this orthodoxy, Hayes was subject to the usual recriminations, swiftly retracting his statement and reiterating his commitment to America’s civic religion. The response to Hayes was typical.

Anyone who expresses less than unbridled support for the US military machine is subject to campaigns of pressure, harassmentdeath threats, and accusations of treason. Treason is a crime with a constrained statutory definition, but it’s used synonymously with apostasy because of the semi-religious way Americans treat our military. One who violates sacred precepts has to be punished and expelled from the group, just like “traitors” are sent death threats and told to go live in a Muslim country.

America’s civic religion is sanctified the same way any other religion is, with shared rituals, beliefs and prayers. The commanding displays by the US military before sporting events are, in the words of conservative historian Andrew Bacevich, “ballpark liturgies,” where we honor our civic religion in our sacrosanct national spaces. We venerate our President as Commander-in-Chief, a role that confers limited constitutional powers but has come to command unlimited obeisance. Sometime after the Second World War, the President metamorphosed from “the Commander In Chief of the Army and Navy” into our Commander-in-Chief. As a pillar of our faith, we recite encomia to our saviors, The Troops. We thank them for Our Freedom, a concept with a nebulous meaning and semi-religious significance (Bush’s Freedom Agenda described freedom as the opposite of hatred, and freedom was called “God’s Gift”). Like all fundamentalist mantras, “Support The Troops” is a thought-terminating cliché that demands unthinking repetition rather than substantive follow-through but looks great on a magnetic car decal.

Even in countries where the military is a powerful and respected institution, like Pakistan or Israel, there is a state religion to occupy that space in the national imaginary. I watched Lone Survivor before moving to Eastern Europe last week because I knew it’s one of those uniquely American cultural products that you can’t get elsewhere. Here in Bulgaria, for instance, the celebrated military victories that lead to Bulgaria’s 1878 liberation are commemorated, but a film like Lone Survivor could never occupy the same cultural space. A hypothetical film about the 1877 Battle of Shipka Pass in which the heroes were shot at with muskets, cannons, and bayoneted for most of the running time would seem strange to audiences here. If critics didn’t like it, there wouldn’t be robust online mobs sending death threats to those who questioned the troops’ sacrifices.

Only in America could a secular martyrdom film like Lone Survivor exist because only in America is the military our state religion.