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The Lying War Film

From 'Lone Survivor' to 'American Sniper'



War movies have been fudging facts for as long as movies have been made.  The film format demands that manipulations occur.  Films have just two hours to tell a story, which necessarily means complex stories are going to contain combined scenes and characters, and missing sub-plots, and streamlined stories.  And audiences, mostly, are okay with this.  No one is going to get upset if two non-essential supporting cast members are combined into a single character for the sake of economy and speeding up a story so that it can fit in a two hour film reel.  What matters is that the essential truth of the story - whatever it is - remains honestly told.

Unfortunately, all too often, the essential truth is also being boldly manipulated.  This matters.  It especially matters for war films, because many - indeed, most - war films are about some aspect of American history.  War films are about the only cinematic genre that are almost always based on some real aspect of history.  And whatever the doctored manipulated final version is - that's what the story becomes in popular culture.  For ours is a visual culture, a culture that tells its cultural stories through the mediums of television and cinema.  The history of a given moment will be remembered as the film showed it to be - not as it really was.  This makes the actions of certain liars all the more reprehensible, as they get to hijack our collective history.

Let's consider some examples.

Men of Honor told the story of the Navy's first African-American master diver.  There aren't a whole lot of war stories about African-Americans, so I gave this film some latitude.  The film includes an incredulous scene at the end where Carl Brasher, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., has an encounter with a Soviet nuclear sub - an encounter that didn't happen in real life.  They took this American hero's story, and just added a big fake action scene to make his life more amazing than it really was.  Overcoming entrenched racism, ostracism from his peers, and still mastering one of the military's most difficult courses wasn't enough.  Hollywood needed a big special effect action scene to make him really special.  But at the end of the day, the film wasn't about the sub, it was about Brasher and the obstacles he faced to success, so on that point, the film - even though it wasn't very good - was honest to the essential truth of the story.

Platoon was broadly based on Oliver Stone's experiences in Vietnam as a young infantry soldier.  Stone never claimed that it was auto-biographical.  Instead, it incorporated some of his own experiences, but also some of the experiences of his friends, and events that occurred while he was in-country.  And yes, he added some Hollywood dramatization.  But the film was at least honest to the essential truth of the story, which was to tell the story, not of a single man, but to tell the story of tens of thousands of infantry privates at once.  This film too was true to its essential truth.

Now let's consider Lone Survivor.  I loved the film and afterwards, I questioned in an article whether it mattered that the film added a fake ending, and greatly exaggerated the number of enemy fighters that they had to face.  My present view has become a bit more pointed.  Now, I think it does matter.  The essential truth of that film was a visceral battle between four Navy SEALs and a much large enemy element.  But when we the viewer see 200 enemy fighters, instead of "just" 40, it fundamentally changes the entire film.  The film version creates astronomical odds that no human could hope to survive and then, in the viewer who presumes its the truth, it creates a sort of unbelievable exclamation that someone did survive.  The film would have been just as exciting with the SEALs "only" facing 40 enemy fighters.  In fact, I argue that it could have been more exciting because each enemy fighter could have been presented as a real target that was difficult to kill - with 200 fighters, much of the film is spent in a sort of comic book state of exaggeration where every bullet kills an enemy fighter.  (They have to exaggerate the accuracy, how else can they include the necessary body count in the running time if they're having the SEALs fight 200 men!)  

​My point is that the film would have been just as exciting if they had just told the truth.  But they didn't.  And somehow, for me, that matters, it changes my entire appreciation for the film, which I initially admired so much upon its release.  And, sadly, it cheats the heroes who died there, because they're not being honored or respected by a nation of cinema goers for what they did, but rather for what they didn't do.  Is Lone Survivor honest to the essential truth of the story?  It's debatable, but for myself, I'm going to say no.

The next egregious offender?  American Sniper.  Another film, which I gave a rave review to, but then begin to reconsider my review in light of information that much of the film is likely inaccurate.  The film shows a protagonist that is struggling with PTSD and reluctantly embraces his job as a sniper.  New evidence suggests that in real-life, Kyle rather enjoyed his job and liked killing people.  The film, aware that the real Chris Kyle wouldn't be as appealing a protagonist to the American audience, simply sort of made him into a different person for the screen, a man who was more introspective and suffering for the moral burden forced onto him by war.  A far cry from the real-life Kyle who wished he could kill more people.

Here it seems there is no essential truth to the story.  Or rather, the essential truth of the story was entirely fictionalized.  

Fictionalized war films based on real wars are fine.  Saving Private Ryan was fictional but still fantastic.  So was Apocalypse Now.  But to say it's a real person is to borrow unearned esteem from real life that hasn't been earned.

Both of these films, which I enjoyed greatly and gave rave reviews to, I now feel conflicted about.  As pieces of cinema they're still great.  But as historical artifacts telling stories from our culture about our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I'm worried that we've too readily accepted that our history is fake.


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