No matter where you stand on
the wisdom of our longest war—the one still going on in Afghanistan—you are likely to be affected by “Lone Survivor.” Director/producer Peter Berg’s screen version of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s 2005 memoir, “Survivor,” generally steers clear of the political issues though the Taliban are explicitly the “bad guys.” The movie is most remarkable for its portrayal of the extreme difficulties and lethal dangers for the American military engaged in combat in this hostile zone.
The specific mission is Operation Red Wings, a June, 2005, debacle from which only Luttrell emerged alive, while nineteen of his brothers in arms were killed. We know this from the title, of course, but also from the opening scene, when the badly wounded Seal is being evacuated by helicopter. Berg than shifts back three days to the Baghram air base three days earlier, where the soldiers are writing home on their computers, discussing a paint choice, a wedding present, the family. They are also getting revved up for the mission to come, a quick in and out to kill a Taliban leader responsible for the deaths of many Marines.
From the start, it’s clear that this operation has “too many moving parts.” Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg) and three others (played by Michael Murphy, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch) will be in radio contact only sporadically in the harsh mountainous terrain. Operating in a village controlled by the Taliban, who terrorize its inhabitants, they cannot expect much help from the locals. When they first view the place, one character comments that the enemy presence there is “an army.”
In fact, later estimates would be that the four men faced 140 Taliban fighters, armed with considerably heavier weaponry that the Seals carry in. When the Americans are accidentally discovered by some Afghan goatherds, the quandary becomes whether to let them go or kill them. Luttrell, citing the rules of engagement and the likely consequence of killing unarmed civilians, argues successfully for releasing them. But the “right” decision has disastrous consequences. The youngest goatherd hops down the mountain like one of his flock to alert the Taliban: soon, the four find themselves surrounded in an untenable position.
There ensues an extended firefight scene which comprises the full bag of cinematic techniques. Shooting in the rugged mountains of New Mexico, Berg and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler bring the viewer right into the fierce, sometimes hand-to-hand combat. When the SEALs are twice forced to tumble down the mountain, the filmmakers spare none of the physical pain the moves inflict. And film editor Colby Parker uses lightning fast cutting to convey the (literal) rapid-fire, confusing action, putting us in the boots of the besieged Americans. Berg’s screenplay shortens the actual five-day mission to three, further upping the intensity.
Eventually, with the help of some of the villagers, Luttrell escapes, only to be found again by the Taliban. His last-minute rescue feels a little too much like the timeworn “here comes the cavalry” cliché, but the scenes leading up to and away from it provide a humanizing touch, even a dash of unlikely humor in the midst of Luttrell’s desperate situation. Luttrell himself has a bit part in the film, so the village scenes are presumably authentic.
Authenticity is the hallmark of “Lone Survivor,” which is appropriately rated “R” for intense, graphic violence and ubiquitous profanity. It is not for the fainthearted. I can’t say that it glorifies combat, but it certainly views the SEALs as heroes, as do David Bowie’s closing song and Berg’s inclusion of photos of the actual combatants with the closing credits.