MURPH: The Protector is one of those movies that ought not be judged by the conventional criteria we apply to entertainment products. It is a documentary with the limited but entirely honorable mission of commemorating the life and sacrifice of Navy Lt. Michael P. Murphy, a Navy SEAL who died in a firefight in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in June 2005. Murphy was leading three fellow SEALs on a reconnaissance mission designed to kill or capture a Taliban leader when they were pinned down by a three-sided attack of more than 100 well-organized Taliban fighters. Murphy decided to bolt from the cover of the rocks into the open where he could get a clear signal on his satellite phone and call in his position to his headquarters.
Murphy, who suffered at least one gunshot wound before making the call, was shot in the back while he was on the phone. He dropped it, picked it up and requested support for his unit, signing off by saying, “Roger that, sir. Thank you.” Mortally wounded, he then returned to his position to continue fighting until he died from his wounds. For his courage under fire, Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was the first person to be awarded the medal for the war in Afghanistan and the first Navy SEAL to be so honored since the Vietnam War. (He has also had a park, a post office and a Navy warship named after him.)
But as dramatic and well-documented as that firefight was, that single act of bravery does not dominate this artfully crafted and professionally realized portrait of a young man who died young. Writer and director Scott Mactavish instead tells Murphy’s story in roughly chronological order, interviewing many of his friends, his family, and others who knew him to construct a portrait of a modest overachiever whose selflessness was apparent at an early age. Murphy earned his nickname “The Protector” for intervening when three bullies attempted to stuff a disabled kid into a locker during high school - one of his old lifeguard buddies remembers how Murphy was always available to even things out if a fight seemed one-sided.
If Murphy seems extraordinary - and again and again his buddies remind us of just how special he was - there is plenty of evidence of his humility, and a contravening sense that his story was not so atypical for a Navy SEAL. The portrait that emerges is of a solid if not stellar athlete who was more concerned with team success than individual glory (he lost his starting safety position while in high school, but impressed his coaches with his willingness to help the kid who took his place), a voracious reader (and honor student) and a young man who (as one of his friends sheepishly admits) “liked to party.” We also get a sense of Murphy as a rather quiet sort who kept at least some of his cards close to his vest - his parents and friends were surprised when he elected to join the Navy, intending to become a SEAL rather than pursuing law school after Penn State.
Mactavish relies a lot on straightforward, talking head interviews, but the film is deftly edited (by Todd Free), with different speakers picking up the thread of an anecdote and developing it further. It helps that Murphy’s family appears to be comprosed of natural storytellers, with his father Daniel, a former Long Island prosecutor who was wounded in Vietnam, coming off as a particularly empathetic figure. And the story Murphy’s mother tells about her son’s funeral is as moving and sweet as it is strange.
If there is any criticism to be made, it might be that we don’t always know the provenance of some of the footage Mactavish uses; though it’s easy enough to pick out the footage supplied by the family, it would be nice to know where the clips of the SEAL training came from. Also, though we can imagine plenty of reasons why Murphy’s fiancee might not have wanted to appear on camera (the movie was shot several years after Murphy’s death), her unexplained absence from the film is at least distracting.
But that’s all nitpicking - Mactavish deserves nothing but credit for making this movie. A former sailor himself, Mactavish has knocked about in the film industry (according to his bio he worked as a stunt double on The Crow and as a grip on The Hudsucker Proxy; the Internet Movie Database reveals he had a part - “Goomba” - in 1993’s Super Mario Brothers) for the last couple of decades, and now has established himself as the triple threat (he also writes and produces) at the head of Mactavish Pictures, a production company that specializes in “stories of honor, courage and commitment.” (The company has another documentary, Ride For Lance, presumably a similar sort of documentary that focuses on Navy SEAL Lance Vaccaro, who was killed in a training accident in 2008.)
MURPH: The Protector is a good film in the sense that it is an appropriate tribute to a man who deserves to be called a hero. It is a model for a kind of sober yet celebratory film obituary that, in a better world, would be unnecessary. Because a better world would not require the sacrifice of bright young men like Michael Murphy.
MURPH: The Protector 87 Cast: Documentary Director: Scott Mactavish Rating: PG Running time: 77 minutes