MURPH: The Protector

Honoring the Dead

Main Cast: Daniel Murphy, Maureen Murphy

Director: Scott Mactavish

Sometimes it’s important to approach a movie knowing exactly what you’re getting into.  If it’s a thriller, maybe you want to know as few details as possible, but if it’s a documentary about a member of the military, the more information, the better.  I went into MURPH: The Protector with my eyes wide open, and came away with both more and less than I expected.

MURPH: The Protector is the story of Michael Murphy, a young man from Long Island who lost his life in Afghanistan in 2005 as part of a Navy SEAL operation.  We learn about Murphy from his parents, relatives and friends, starting back when he was a little boy.  They talk about the type of person he was – generous, athletic, smart and protective of the underdog.  There are no negative stories shared about Murphy – just kindness, fun and a great son/sibling/friend.  That is absolutely to be expected – people don’t talk ill of the dead, certainly not in a documentary that sets out to portray him as a true American hero.

We learn about his time in college and his decision to go into the military, one which his parents did not at first support.   His father fought in Vietnam and was clearly against his son joining the Navy.  But that’s what Murphy wanted and he fought hard to become a Navy SEAL.  He wanted to be part of such an elite, highly trained and specialized unit and was proud of his accomplishments.  By the time he was a full fledged SEAL, his parents shared that pride, knowing how important it was to their son.

Family and friends continue the story with the few details they have of what he actually did as an active Navy SEAL.  He wasn’t allowed to tell them very much and didn’t talk about his work when he came home.  Just as sketchy is the story of the incident in Afghanistan that ended his life.  But it’s very well put together and moving, as the people who obviously

Michael Murphy

Michael Murphy

cared deeply for him relate both the events at home during that harrowing time and how Murphy affected their lives in more general ways.  There’s also a side story about a young man working his way toward going to college to become a doctor that ties into the main narrative toward the end.

Let me preface my analysis of this film by stating that I am not part of the military establishment and did not grow up in an environment of military tradition.  As such, my reaction to MURPH: The Protector was not positive.  My feelings, as I watched people tell tales of this wonderful young man and then relate the ugly way he died were simple: what a waste.

I fully understand that in 2005 the events of 9/11 were very fresh and people were clinging to the notion that the young people being sent to the other side of the world were somehow protecting their country.  But this movie was not made in 2005, it was made in 2013.  Twelve years after 9/11, young people continue to die in Afghanistan and Iraq.  A lot of us believe those deaths have little or nothing to do with protecting our country.  Rather, we question why such a smart young person would place themselves in an environment where he was not only in danger of being killed, but also expected to kill others.

So here’s my problem with the film as it stands.  We know in 2013 that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  We know the casualties that have amassed as part of a futile effort to halt terrorism by invading sovereign nations.  Yet this young man, no question smart and generous and devoted, is portrayed as a hero – someone to be emulated and remembered by history.  We know very little about what actually happened on that lonely mountain in Afghanistan, but

Michael Murphy Medal of Honor Ceremony

Michael Murphy Medal of Honor Ceremony

we do know that Murphy made the call that allowed one of his men – the only survivor – to be rescued.  Is he really a hero?  Do we know enough to proclaim him one?  He was given the Medal of Honor by then-President Bush – does that make him a hero?  Or does that make him a high profile political pawn?  And the biggest question of all – do we want to use the powerful medium of film to glorify a man who willingly and enthusiastically engaged in covert operations with the express purpose of taking human lives on foreign soil?  Do we want our children to follow in his footsteps?

I don’t know the answers to all of those questions.  I know only how I would answer them.  Every viewer is going to approach MURPH: The Protector with his or her own set of beliefs about military service in general, Navy SEALS and covert operations and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  If you don’t believe that those are resoundingly good and noble pursuits, you too may be troubled by the undiluted hero worship of Michael Murphy in MURPH: The Protector.  On the other hand, if you are part of the military establishment or part of a family with a strong military tradition, you will likely see it very, very differently.  I advise you to know to which camp you belong before choosing to watch the documentary.

For those of you who support this type of life and death, the documentary is very well put together by writer/director Scott Mactavish.  The interviews flow well from one to the next and form a cohesive narrative (unlike the boring mess that is Bully, a far more high profile documentary) backed by a well chosen musical score.  Mactavish builds tension despite the viewer already knowing the outcome and has a clear devotion to the subject matter.  The film itself is very professional and without the type of in-your-face gimmickry that marks some overtly politically charged documentaries.  Kudos also to the family and friends of Michael Murphy.  This clearly was not an easy story for them to tell, and for their part, they honor their lost loved one.  They are not the ones that bear the responsibility for whether this should be a hero’s tale – their only responsibility is to remember Murphy in a way that lets them survive such a devastating loss.

The rest of the burden lies with us, the viewers.  I do not think that Michael Murphy was a hero.  I don’t think anyone should ever be encouraged to see his choices, actions or death as heroic.  I wouldn’t recommend this movie to any young person who is even the slightest bit impressionable.  If you feel otherwise, the film is put together nicely and will support your views in a moving fashion.  Whether you see it or not is a decision that is entirely yours.  I do not recommend MURPH: The Protector because it glorifies something I find abhorrent.  If, from everything you’ve read, you do not share my reservations, perhaps it will be a good choice for you.  Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.  I will not be giving this film a star rating.

If you want to read more about Michael Murphy, below is a book about his life and death by author Gary Williams.

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