“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. Continue reading

Film Review: “Trucker and The Fox”

I learned about the nobility of donkeys from Lawrence Wright discussing his book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. Covering a group as famously prickly and totalitarian as Scientology poses unique narrative challenges, involving the reader’s sense identification with the story. A reader won’t be engaged if they can’t empathize with any of the participants–they must to be able to see themselves getting swept up with the Church of Scientology if the book is to have any weight. Wright told the audience that he solved this problem in 2011 with the defection of filmmaker Paul Haggis. Scientology had for decades been a great white (litigious) whale of journalism, but now he had a chance to tell the story because Wright had found his “donkey.” To the snickering audience, Wright said “I don’t mean any disrespect, the donkey is a noble animal. The donkey carries a heavy load, like my donkey carries the reader through the story.” The donkey gets a bad rap given how it’s provided us reliable, unpretentious service for 5,000 years. People get frustrated with updates to the iPhone OS, but its name has never becomes synonymous with “dumb.” It was a joy, then, to see this film’s eponymous trucker, Mahmood Kiyani Falavarjani, defend the noble donkey. Arash Lahooti’s 2013 film Trucker and the Fox is full of moments like this, part of an incredible true story of an animal-loving long-hauler. Continue reading

It’s good to be the superpower: “Captain Phillips” and “A Hijacking”

Captain Phillips, based on the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking by Somali pirates, is perfect fodder for Paul Greengrass. Over the course of his decade-long film career, Paul Greengrass has staked his claim on a trademark steadicam filming technique and ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter. The political subject matter married to his technique give his work a feeling of “shaky-cam immediacy,” an attempt to emulate the feeling and gravitas of live reporting. Greengrass loves filming people in front of screens, cutting between communications nodes, coördinating with commandos ready for action.

Like United 93, based on the story of “the flight that fought back,” or Green Zone, based on journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s chronicle of the administration of post-conquest Iraq, Captain Phillips has the imprimatur of real-life relevance. Like United 93, it tells a War on Terror story that contains a triumphant ending in a conflict that lacks clear victories. Like Green Zone, though, it tells that story with a hint of nuance and an effort to humanize its enemies—though not criticism. Continue reading

“12 Years a Slave,” “Django Unchained,” and that time Spike Lee was totally right

12 Years a Slave, the new film by Hunger and Shame auteur Steve McQueen, is one of those films whose arrival dominates the critical conversation. The film, based on the memoirs of escaped slave Solomon Northrup, is being praised for its artistic as well as its revelatory qualities. Paul MacInnes of The Guardian calls it “not just a great film but a necessary one.” All reviewers talk about the brutality of slavery depicted in the film, because brutality is a necessary component in a film purporting to depict the realities of American slavery.

Many, like Richard Roeper, make the comparison to last year’s Django Unchained. The comparison keeps popping up, despite the fact that 12 Years and Django have relatively little in common. 12 Years is, in the words of MacInnes a “stark, visceral and unrelenting” biopic of a man enduring hellish torment. Django is a Leone-inspired Western, at times bloody but cartoonish. To the degree there’s any relationship at all between the two, 12 Yearsis a necessary corrective to the antics of Django Unchained.” The consensus is that 12 Years is brutal and unforgiving, whereas Django shares only the motif of slavery. 12 Years shows us that Django didn’t come close to illuminating the realities of the time. What I’m wondering is, when do we acknowledge that Spike Lee was totally right about Django, and the legions of people who criticized him were wrong? Continue reading

Film Review: “The Act of Killing”

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is a film that Werner Herzog called “unprecedented in the history of cinema.” It is remarkable because its subjects are men with the blood of thousands on their hands, invited to re-imagine their crimes onscreen. The three, Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry and Herman Koto, do so gleefully. Aping the styles of film noir thrillers, westerns, and musicals; the group recreates war crimes they committed in 1965-66, following Suharto’s coup in Indonesia. The unique nature of the film is partially visual: the setpieces they stage are often dreamlike, in stark contrast with the horrors being recreated. More shocking than the surreal imagery, though, is the way that the killers boast with impunity about their acts. They move about their milieu and speak about their crimes freely, and this is what makes The Act of Killing such a shocking film. A society’s embrace of war inverts the moral order: it makes criminals into heroes, it renders victims nonexistent, and it supplants reality with propaganda, lies and mythology. The decision to let war criminals to go unpunished makes this inversion permanent and systemic. The Act of Killing is unique because it illustrates these realities by rendering the abstract visceral.


First as tragedy, then as elaborate Hollywood-style production.

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Japan’s Haunted Pop-Culture Courts

I’ve noticed a strange pop culture trope unique to Japan (“just one?”) and it’s made me think. Why isn’t more ghost-delivered evidence admissable in court? I’ve realized that in Japan’s fictional courtrooms, testimony delivered by channeling is acceptable. At what point in Japanese pop-cultural history did ghost-testimony become a decisive part of their judicial system?  Continue reading