I never figured that my 32 military career would lead me to attend a film premiere at Sundance Film Festival…but I spent last weekend in Park City doing just that…
Legion of Brothers is a documentary produced by CNN’s Peter Bergen, his wife, Tresha Mabile, and Greg Barker, a director who has done a lot of great films focused on conflicts around the globe. It is about the 5th Special Forces Group (SFG) teams that went into Afghanistan to link up with Abdul Rashid Dostum, the former War Lord, and Hamid Karzai, the former President of Afghanistan, to drive Al Qaida and the Taliban out of power.
This all started four years ago when I was at USSOCOM, and then-commander Admiral McRaven was trying to change the public perception about Special Operations Forces (SOF). At that time, Hollywood was cranking out a lot of films that were SEAL-centric and focused on direct action. Direct action looks good on the big screen, but it is only 10-15% of the missions that SOF does. ADM McRaven wanted something to inform the public about the other side of SOF.
ADM McRaven was always talking about the movie The Green Berets and how that motivated him to become a SEAL. He loved the fact that the movie was made in a time when the country was being torn apart by the Vietnam War, yet it inspired a lot of young people to join the military—especially to be SOF. But it was almost a movie that didn’t happen. John Wayne believed in the project, so he funded the movie and Warner Brothers reluctantly did the production. Even though John Wayne was told a movie about Vietnam would be a huge bust at the box office, he pressed ahead, overcame obstacles, and had a huge block buster as a result.
We took inspiration from Mr. Wayne and ADM McRaven. One day, the USSOCOM Public Affairs Officer looked at me and said, “Stu, we need to go to Hollywood.” So we did. We met with a bunch of studios and documentary makers, aiming for ones that had past performance with military films. The big take away from the visit was that everyone we talked to in Hollywood wanted to do big, glamourous SOF projects. But we wanted something with substance instead of flash…so we decided that we needed to make a documentary.
We were courted by a range of big name documentary makers. They were all interested, but they wanted to see direct action in Afghanistan—and that wasn’t the message we were aiming for. We were getting discouraged, until someone told us to watch a documentary called Manhunt.
Manhunt was a 2013 film by Peter, Tresha, and Greg about CIA operatives that spent years hunting for Osama Bin Laden. The CIA cooperated with the filmmakers enough to create a solid film, and it was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival that year. My entire family watched it and we loved it. We figured that if the producers were good enough to get the CIA to cooperate, then SOF might be willing to work with them as well.
We went to DC to meet with Peter and Tresha and they agreed to produce a SOF documentary. Our pitch was for a Band of Brothers type story for Afghanistan, with a focus on the real men that were there—and not the Generals and Admirals. Peter and Tresha went in full throttle and got CNN, the Office of the SecDef, and USSOCOM to come on board and support the project.
From there it took several years to get the right, quality product. They interviewed a lot of people to find stories that were meaningful. It was a lot of work to get guys that usually stay quiet to cooperate and open up, but an impactful story came together that really hits on the human interest side of Special Forces.
Sundance Film Festival again saw the power of Peter, Tresha and Greg’s work, and selected Legion of Brothers to premiere there on January 21, 2017. I was invited to attend, and the movie is amazing. You will laugh, cry, and walk out numb. The music, editing, characters……it will hold you for the full 78 minutes. The entire audience gave the film a standing ovation, and you could feel a buzz about it the entire weekend. It is a film that will have a big impact on the SOF community, and I am honored to know the many people that made it happen.
The team that brought Legion of Brothers to life will be attending our Global SOF Symposium in February to talk about the documentary and do a Q&A, which I can guarantee will be a highlight of the event. Don’t miss it.