Daily Beast editor Tina Brown joins NPR's Steve Inskeep from time to time as part of an ongoing conversation Morning Edition calls Word of Mouth. This month she's talking about stories of survival — from a dangerous Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan to a terrorist attack in Mumbai. And then there's survival of a different sort: sticking out a very long career in Hollywood.
Making It Through A War Zone
Her first pick is Lone Survivor, an upcoming movie from director Peter Berg --"a fantastic new war film," Brown says, "probably the best war film, I think, since Saving Private Ryan."
It's based on the memoir by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, who was the only survivor among a group of four dropped deep into Afghanistan's Hindu Kush region in 2005. They were on a reconnaissance mission, called Operation Red Wing, that went horribly wrong.
"The heart of the film is when the SEALs on the mountainside run into a small group of Afghan goatherds," Brown says. "And they realize suddenly that these goatherds are going to go back and alert the Taliban."
In the movie, and in Luttrell's memoir, the SEALs argue about whether or not to let the goatherds go.
"Because of course killing civilians goes right against every kind of code of the SEALs," Brown says. "I actually talked to [Luttrell] after a screener in an interview, and I asked him, you know, how does he feel today about that decision to let the goat herds go, which I said at the time, was probably the right moral decision to do. And he exploded. He said he really resented that it was 'the right thing to do.' He said, 'How do you know what was the right thing to do? Nobody but us who was on that mountainside, in that conflict, in that war zone, knows what was the right thing to do.' "
"Which I totally understand — because of course, you know, he's haunted by it to this very day. Absolutely haunted. The decision to let the goat herds go, of course, meant that all his beloved buddies, that he was so close to, you know, were murdered."
A Night In Mumbai
Brown's second pick is a book she calls "an investigative masterpiece."
"It's so vivid it ought to be a movie," she says.
The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel, is a nonfiction account of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India by Pakistani terrorists, from the perspectives of the people inside the hotel that was the focus of the mayhem. It's written by two accomplished British investigative journalists, Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy.
"The Taj Hotel was the centerpiece of it all," Brown says. "And what they do is, they describe every one of the [people] who'd checked into that hotel: tycoons and the Korean trade delegation and a famous food writer, and a young rich couple who'd gone there for their wedding celebration. And at the same time they also cover the wonderful 'downstairs' family life of the staff, if you like, with the chefs and the under-chef, the kitchen brigade as they were called. And they were so incredibly brave."
One staff member the book focuses on saved many lives that day, despite losing his own family in the attack.
"[He] was completely focused on trying to save guests, even as he knew that his wife and two sons were trapped on the sixth floor of the hotel, and he was terrified that they were going to get murdered."
The book also digs deep into the lives of the terrorists who carried out the attacks.
"The masterminds in Pakistan recruited these really poor, aimless kids in very harsh Pakistan rural areas," Brown says. "They brainwashed them into becoming young killing machines. They were really ... desensitized boys who then wreaked this incredible havoc all over Mumbai that night."
Survival On The Big Screen — And Behind The Scenes
Brown's final selection is about a very different kind of survivor, actor Robert Redford. Stephen Rodrick profiled the veteran actor and director in a "wonderful piece" for this month's Men's Journal.
"I don't usually read many celebrity profiles anymore because, you know, without the real access you very rarely get anything good," Brown says. "But this piece actually, by Stephen Rodrick, is a very, very evocative piece about Redford, who is himself a survivor."
In his latest film, All Is Lost, the actor plays a man trapped for eight days on a damaged yacht in the Indian Ocean, trying to survive entirely on his own.
"Redford is the only actor in the movie, and he doesn't actually speak, which is even more of a kind of a acting feat on his part," Brown says.
"And you know Rodrick really describes how we've spent so long seeing Redford as this kind of great, beautiful-looking hunk, that actually his acting skills were kind of forgotten," she says. "But he had a great, sort of ambivalence always towards fame."
The article talks about the span of time during which Redford retreated from Hollywood to Utah, where the Sundance Film Festival now takes place.
"And also the ironies of that, because of course when he built Sundance it was as a kind of a purist festival that would only focus on the very good movies for art's sake — and of course then Hollywood took over again."
"And you know he's 77 now," Brown continues. "And yet he put himself completely in the hands of a 37 year-old director [All Is Lost director J.C. Chandor] and took on this movie which took him right out of his own comfort zone. Because he's always played, you know, heroes in whatever movie he took on, and this time he's just an old man trying to survive in the ocean."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Tina Brown is with us once again. She joins us for a regular feature we call Word of Mouth. She tells us about stories she's been reading, things she's been seeing and hearing, and gives us recommendations for what to look for. Hi, Tina.
TINA BROWN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And we have a theme here of survival. Everybody's surviving in these stories and other things you've got here, including a film that's based on a book, a memoir. And the film is called "Lone Survivor." What is it?
BROWN: It is a fantastic new war film that's about to come out, probably the best war film, I think, since "Saving Private Ryan." "Lone Survivor" is based on the book by the former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. It stars Mark Wahlberg and Taylor Kitsch and a raft of other great actors. And it's directed by Peter Berg, who created the classic TV show "Friday Night Lights."
The movie shows the devastating operation Red Wings that occurred in 2005, when four Navy SEALS dropped deep into the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan on a recognizance mission to target a brutal Taliban commander. And it all goes horribly, horribly wrong. And at the end of it, the group of SEALS who were dropped into the Hindu Kush are all dead, except for Marcus Luttrell. It is an absolutely, incredibly exciting film.
And it has a lot of moral implications, too, because the heart of the film is when the SEALS on the mountainside run into a small group of Afghan goatherds. And they realize, suddenly, that these goatherds are going to go back and alert the Taliban, that they found them. And they have this incredibly tense and heated argument between them about should we just kill them right now and protect the mission, or should we let them go? Because, of course, killing civilians just goes right against every kind of code of the SEALS. And also, of course, they could end up in a war crime tribunal. So, they're actually really, really, you know, divided about what to do. And, of course, they decide to let them go.
INSKEEP: And we should mention, of course, it's a film. I'm sure they've changed things and made things more dramatic, but the essence of what you described is what Marcus Luttrell himself described in his memoir. According to his story, this is how it happened.
BROWN: It absolutely is. And, in fact, when I talked to him after a screener in an interview, I asked him, you know, how does he feel today about that decision to let the goatherds go - which I said, at the time, was probably the right moral decision to do. And he exploded. He said he really resented that it was, quote, "the right thing to do." He said: How do you know what was the right thing to do? Nobody but us, who was on that mountainside in that conflict in that warzone, know what was the right thing to do.
INSKEEP: He said something similar in his interview with us. And it's not exactly that he's saying that they should have killed them, but that he doesn't like anyone judging that situation (unintelligible).
BROWN: He doesn't like it. And I understand it, because, you know, it is true. And I think that what's wonderful about the film, actually, is that it really shows us, in a sense, you know, the incredible sacrifices we expect from the young men and women we send to war.
And, you know, it's very moving at the end, because although the SEALS die, this bond, which is severed between these great serving men, at the same time, it is another kind of bomb that actually saves Luttrell, because he's rescued not by Americans, but by a local Afghan man who is not a Taliban man, but simply an Afghan villager. And he, too, has a code of loyalty, and that is that you always protect someone who is a guest in your village.
So, he risks his own life to save Luttrell, which is very moving. And, actually, Luttrell described, when I spoke to him, you know, how the bond between him and Gulab, the Afghan man, has continued, and they sometimes Skype each other just and sit in silence, because they know they're the only two people who share this incredible experience.
INSKEEP: Tina, you've also selected a book, here, a nonfiction book, about the 2008 attacks on the hotels and other targets in Mumbai, India - horrible story of destruction and death, but it's part of your theme here about survival. Why is that?
BROWN: Well, "The Siege" - this new book written by two investigative journalists, Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy - in my view, is an investigative masterpiece. It's so vivid, it ought to be a movie. The Taj Hotel was the centerpiece of it all. And they describe every one of the characters who checked into that hotel: tycoons and the Korean trade delegation and a famous food writer and a young rich couple who'd gone there for their wedding celebration.
And at the same time, they also cover the wonderful downstairs family life of the staff, if you like, with the chefs and the under chef - the kitchen brigade, as they were called - that were so incredibly brave. One of the big stars of the book, really, the great heroic star, is the GM of the Taj, who was completely focused on trying to save guests, even as he knew that his wife and two sons were trapped on the sixth floor of the hotel. And he was terrified that they were going to get murdered. And, in the end, they were all burned to death when the terrorists set off firebombs.
INSKEEP: But he saved lives.
BROWN: He saved many lives. And, you know, what is also amazing about the book, though, is the portrait of the killers. It shows how their masterminds in Pakistan recruited these really poor, aimless kids, often rejected by their parents in very harsh Pakistan rural areas. They brainwashed them. They just overwhelmed their fear. They took their vulnerability, and they really just kind of manipulated them into become young killing machines. So that when they set them off on these boats to land in Mumbai on the beach, they set them out in their T-shirts and baseball hats and identical Nokia handsets, they were these really kind of focused, you know, desensitized boys who then wreaked this incredible havoc all over Mumbai that night.
INSKEEP: So, this book gathers the stories of people who survived a horrible attack. You have also sent us, Tina Brown, a very, very different idea of survival in an article in Men's Journal. It's an interview with Robert Redford, who has survived in the business that he's in, in Hollywood for a long time.
BROWN: Yes. It's a wonderful piece. I mean, I don't usually read many celebrity profiles anymore because, you know, without the real access, you very rarely get anything good. But this piece, actually, by Stephen Rodrick is a very, very evocative piece about Redford, who is himself a survivor, as you rightly say. And he's also playing a survivor in this new movie of his, "All Is Lost," in which he's playing a man who sets sail on his own through the Indian Ocean when his boat's hit by a shipping container and spends eight days trying to survive.
And Redford is the only actor in the movie, and he doesn't actually speak, which is even more of a kind of an acting feat on his part. And, you know, Rodrick really describes how we've spent so long seeing Redford - so many of us did, for many years - as this kind of great, beautiful-looking, you know, hunk, that actually, his acting skills was kind of forgotten.
But he had a great sort of ambivalence always towards fame. And even as he proved himself yet again as a director with an Oscar for "Ordinary People," he then withdrew even more and went off to his estates in Utah and just sort of focused on the environment and his building of the Sundance Ranch - and also the ironies of that. Because, of course, when he built Sundance, it was as kind of purist festival that would only focus on the very good movies for art's sake. And, of course, then Hollywood took over again.
And, you know, he's 77 now, and yet he put himself completely in the hands of a young director and took on this movie, which took himself right out of his own comfort zone, because he's always played, you know, heroes in whatever movie he took on. And this time, he's just an old man trying to survive in the ocean.
INSKEEP: And at 77, he's still doing his own stunts?
BROWN: Yeah, that was another amazing thing about it. You know, his director, J.C. Chandor, was terrified of actually losing his star in some hideous terminal accident, because Redford insisted on doing his own stunts. I mean, incredible dives into the ocean and wrestling with the elements. He did all of this himself, and refused to have anybody else doing it for him, as yet another kind of way of saying I am not an old guy who's past his best. And he did it.
INSKEEP: Word of Mouth, from Tina Brown. Tina, thanks, as always.
BROWN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: And you can, of course, find Tina's reading recommendations at npr.org. We're glad you're with us on this local public radio station. Remember that you can continue following MORNING EDITION throughout the day on social media. We're on Facebook. We're on Twitter. We're @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.