Review: Lone Survivor

I’ve described elsewhere on this blog what a shit person I am to watch war films with.  As a military historian who has also spent the last thirty years as a professional soldier, I am undeniably finicky about what constitutes a good war film.  My long-suffering wife and children know that if we watch a war film – or a spy film for that matter – they’re going to have to put up with a barrage of sneering and jeering as, for example, a 1950s American tank with a swastika on it is rolled out as a German World War Two King Tiger, or our hero takes out a bad guy at 300 metres with a 9mm pistol.  Indeed I’m sufficiently self-aware to dread watching crap war films on my own: I can feel the bile rise as the bullshit piles up and I inevitably find myself having to watch something cheery and life-affirming afterwards just to wash the stupid away.

So it was with some trepidation that I watched an illicit* screener version of ‘Lone Survivor’, starring ‘Marky Mark’ Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell, a US Navy SEAL who was the lone survivor of a recce patrol gone to ratshit in Afghanistan in June 2005.  

It’s actually a classic tale of what can go wrong with supposedly ‘covert’ operations. A four man patrol was inserted to establish an observation post on an Afghan village in an attempt to identify the location of a wanted Taliban leader.  They found him but were themselves accidentally compromised by local goat herders, which then kicked off a firefight with the Taliban because the SEALs made the completely correct decision not to kill the goat herders who had bumped into them. In effect, a sort of American ‘Bravo Two Zero’.

I’m not going to put in any spoilers – the title really gives it away – but from a military point of view it was entirely credible. The Navy SEALs are not supermen, the operational fuck-ups are entirely credible and nobody has a magic weapon. It’s authentic, believable, gritty and poignant.

Interestingly, it also portrays the Afghanis with light and shade.  The Taliban are the bad guys, obviously, but as the story unfolds we see another heroic side to the Afghan tribal culture and Peter Berg, the director, does not back away from this.

The most comparable film I can think of is Ridley Scott’s ‘Blackhawk Down’ which described the US Special Forces’ big operational screw-up in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. ‘Lone Survivor’ may be indebted to ‘Blackhawk Down’, but not in a bad way.

So if you feel like going to see an action packed war film that examines some of the important issues and doesn’t hesitate to portray the complications of the Afghan civil war that we have somehow become involved in, I would unreservedly recommend ‘Lone Survivor’. In recompense for having unwittingly viewed an illegal copy, I will be buying the DVD for my library and I will also take my sons to see it.

*It wasn’t me wot downloaded it guv, and I didn’t know what we woz wotching, at first…

Posh State Schools

The Tatler has published a guide to posh state schools (here) and, surprise, surprise, it features Saint Mary Abbots C of E Primary School in Kensington – our local state primary –  where, as it happens, all three junior Weales went (and, indeed, where I was Head Boy in 1974-75).  There’s no doubt it’s a good school, consistently rated ‘outstanding’ by OFSTED but, to be honest, there should be no surprise whatsoever about this.  On location alone, the school’s demographic is significantly white British/European/North American, largely upper-middle class and largely affluent: families aren’t all posh and white by any means, but that’s at the core of the school.  It is very small, cosy and nurturing; it has strong leadership; and the families who send their children there are generally highly success motivated.  It would be amazing if it were anything other than outstanding.  It’s worth noting that both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education send their children there, which seems a reasonable endorsement.

From 1998 to 2012 I regularly walked one or more of my children to Saint Mary Abbots, which involved going past Thomas’s Prep School in Cottesmore Gardens, W8.  I reckon that over that 14 years, sending my children to the local primary school saved us around £300K over the families at Thomas’s, and all three have gone on to good secondary schools (all of which also feature in the Tatler Good Schools Guide, although the independent schools bit), so that increases my almost unbearable smugness over the issue.

But… I spent the same 14 years as a governor of a state primary school in North Kensington, which was a very different kettle of fish. At Colville Primary School, just off the Portobello Road, the demographic was constantly changing as the populations in local cheap and social housing shifted.  When I was first appointed a governor, the school population was a mixture of white working class and Afro-Caribbeans who were then the two dominant groups in the area.  They were followed by refugees from the Balkans, from North Africa and the Middle East, and from Somalia; as well as other human flotsam and jetsam thrown up by conflict around the world.  The effort that the staff and leadership at Colville put in to ensuring that these children got a reasonable education was never less than magnificent.  Some years results were disappointing but more often than not they were above local and national averages, and in the last few years, they have been improving steadily.  In last summer’s Key Stage 2 SATs, Colville actually ranked above St Mary Abbots for ‘value added’, the measure of progress that children make.

So what?  I suspect that The Tatler’s guide is really about identifying schools where little, white middle-class kids can be sent, safe in the knowledge that most of their schoolmates will be other little, white middle-class kids.  The quality of education you get at St Mary Abbots is very high, but not necessarily better than at schools in a far more challenging environment; of course, that isn’t what the Tatler’s Guide to the ‘best’ State Schools is all about.

And, by the way, notwithstanding the advice in The Tatler guide about attending St Mary Abbots Church or Christ Church in Victoria Road, or inviting the Vicar to dinner, the key thing that will get darling Jack and Lily into the school is living nearby.  The average family house in the local area is going to cost you north of £2 million, so good luck with that.