Making a film set in the Middle East based on real events is challenging for many reasons, but one of the biggest problems with it is that it’s an area of complex sociopolitical difficulties. The problems there are ongoing, and unlikely to go away any time soon, so is it even appropriate to make entertainment out of such things? And even if it is, unless you’re making the driest and most impartial documentary in the world, you’re going to have to take some kind of political position yourself, purely to allow the narrative to make any kind of sense. Even if you’re essentially recounting real events, such is the insidious effect of global politics that if you portray the US as remotely positive in any way, you’ll find yourself open to accusations of being a propagandist and war hawk, whereas if you portray Afghan insurgents as anything less than inhuman you’ll be called an apologist for terrorism. So it’s a tightrope you’re walking from day one, and there are many clumsy attempts to stay balanced that have fallen either side of it.

Into this hotbed of potential criticism comes this story of the disastrous American Navy SEALs mission Operation Red Wings, in which four US soldiers were deployed to Afghanistan and – surely not a spoiler given the film’s title – only one of them made it out alive. It’s helmed by the interesting American director Peter Berg, who has vaguely similar form in this arena with his underrated Saudi-set film The Kingdom, and a man with a real eye for an action sequence (more on that later). It’s apparently meticulously-researched, based on the book the “lone survivor” wrote as well as autopsy reports and other eye-witness accounts, and has been made with the full co-operation of the Navy SEALs institution. So on the surface, this looks like an extended recruitment advert for the United States armed forces, and while it never quite shakes that feeling off, it does at least seem to pre-empt some of its criticism and make the effort to dodge it.

The crux of the plot, and its main moral issue, is that while these four men were out in Afghan enemy territory and essentially spying on their target’s compound, they were found by a group of civilian goat-herders. So the dilemma they faced was whether to kill these defenceless people to keep themselves safe, or to let them go (running the risk of the enemy being told about their position) and hope to high-tail it out of there as soon as possible. This alone presents an interesting quandary. If we’re to take the position, as some do, that all American soldiers are ignorant, bloodthirsty rednecks who just want to kill as many brown people as possible, then this wouldn’t even have been a difficult decision for these soldiers. But they chose to let the goat-herders go. This isn’t propaganda – that’s what these men really did. They made the right moral choice, and most paid for it with their lives. That is probably worth having a Hollywood film made out of it.

Having said that, although the basic premise is genuinely interesting from an ethical point of view, the film is a lot more clumsy in other areas. The Taliban enemies are the same faceless, humanity-free mass you see in every other American film. There are several ridiculously jingoistic lines of dialogue. The fetishisation of the US military is pretty full-on. But then, perhaps that’s to be expected for a film based on the memoirs of a Navy SEAL – they’re essentially trained to see the enemy as a faceless “other”, and to never question their devotion to duty. So should the filmmakers have ignored this perspective, the perspective they’re trying to evoke, in favour of something more balanced? Should they have humanised the Taliban, and portrayed them more sympathetically? That doesn’t quite sound right either. It’s a tricky one.

The one thing that is crystal-clear about this film however, is that it contains one of the most astonishing combat sequences ever filmed. When the shit hits the fan, and it really does, Berg pulls out all the stops and manages what I honestly think is the most shocking and brutal depiction of modern combat ever edited together. If the Normandy opening of Saving Private Ryan really took you to those beaches in Northern France, the 40-minute sequence here does the same for the mountains of Afghanistan. It’s a truly shocking series of events, with an unprecedented level of violence and realism. Many have lumped the film under the lazy moniker of “war porn” for it, but if you’re going to aim for verisimilitude with a film like this, then you may as well go the whole hog. So while its politics might still need a bit of work, if you can put those to one side for one moment and examine the filmmaking choices, it’s hard not to be anything but massively impressed.

Genuinely Complex Ethical Choices9
Realistic Attention to Detail8
Inevitable Demonisation of Arab People and Glorification of the US Military4
Can This Story Be Told Without Doing That Though?7
Man, That Combat Sequence10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • n/a
Bechdel Test Failures
  • I cannot remember a single named female character
8Overall Score

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