By Jeffrey Huston
Depicting in relentless, violent detail the events of a 2005 Navy SEAL operation in Afghanistan that went tragically wrong, Lone Survivor is a movie in which its title is its biggest spoiler. Or so it would seem. Because as the grueling war-drama unfolds, the suspense comes not in who will survive this no-win scenario but how. The revelation is a twist I did not see coming, and even brings a degree of redemption to a war effort that has left so many Americans of all political stripes intensely conflicted.
Embracing the title’s giveaway, Lone Survivor opens at story’s end. Navy Corpsman Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg,2 Guns) is being airlifted to safety as we hear his thoughts in voice-over (pulled from Luttrell’s memoir on which the film is based; Luttrell also served as an on-set consultant). From this prologue, the narrative then jumps back to the lead-up to the mission in which four members of SEAL Team 10 were ordered to capture or kill the notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd, hidden deep in the region’s mountainous terrain.
Our introduction to these soldiers is expressed through the kind of profane camaraderie we’ve come to expect from close-knit military platoons – laughing, pranking, competing, and hazing. But director Peter Berg (in a tour-de-force rebound from the tentpole-bomb Battleship) envelops this testosterone-fueled atmosphere with a tender, even elegiac tone. For him, this is a fraternity not in the juvenile sense but rather its most venerable.
The 4-man squadron of sniper-specialist SO’s (Special Warfare Operators) were lead by Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, TV’s Friday Night Lights). After maneuvering to and establishing their position high above Shahd’s village, the team is met with an unexpected scenario that immediately risks compromise. Given their far outpost and the mission’s degree of difficulty, the call to retreat is not the desired choice. They may not get this chance again.
What unfolds is a compelling debate: “just war” theory at its most specific and visceral level. Staying may require killing potentially innocent people, including children. As if the toil of the mission weren’t enough, now it’s been compounded exponentially with a heavy moral burden. The decision they reached – which comes after a tense back-and-forth, resolved only by Murphy’s gut-instinct orders – was morally right, but proved to be strategically fatal.
And that’s when the carnage begins. The SEAL platoon is ambushed and outnumbered by Taliban fighters, and for a third of the film the resulting battle is an onslaught of gory combat brutality. The soldiers slowly-but-progressively become bullet-ridden as they continue to engage, maneuver, cover, and struggle to fend off the attackers and buy time to be saved by a rescue team. That maneuvering adds not just to the difficulty but also injury, causing the soldiers to take multiple bone-cracking spills down deep rocky inclines. The experience, to say the least, has an extremely high wince-quotient.
As punishing as it may be for the audience, the effect of enduring this gauntlet makes its point – to respect and honor these four soldiers (and the countless soldiers they represent) for their valiant, though tragic, attempt to do what is right, and to defend their brothers ahead of themselves (and that includes the other SEAL Team 10 members who fought to save them).
Bravery and honor may seem like heroic clichés at times (especially when it comes to war movies) but men like these lived, fought, and died by these ideals – not because they were forced to, but because such virtues were part of their character. The core quartet of actors – Wahlberg, Kitsch, Ben Foster(Contraband), and Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer) – honor that character not with self-consciously noble, memorialized performances but, rather, by embodying those virtues with an unassuming yet unblinking conviction.
But that’s not the end of the story. In fact, within the film’s narrative, it lasts just barely past the halfway point. So what we’ve gleaned from the title, opening prologue, and preview trailers has all been experienced, and those of us unfamiliar with the story are left wondering, “Well now what?” What occurs, and ultimately saves Luttrell, is surprising, perhaps mostly due to our own limited and caricatured understanding of the region.
Suffice it to say, as terrorized as we are in the West by these radicals, it still pales to the oppression of those who must actually live under it. With due respect to the complex deliberations that must occur when our nation goes to war, and where, this story should cause any Isolationist-leaning American to reconsider that blanket stance – not just on practical grounds, but moral ones.
After an early and impressive start to his directorial career with films like Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom, Berg lost his way in bloated and messy blockbusters like Hancock and Battleship. With Lone Survivor, he’s returned to his roots – both aesthetically and thematically. Still visceral, his action style once again carries humility with its weight rather than just stylistic braggadocio. And his thematic explorations of courage, fear, integrity and sacrifice once again feel like introspective meditations rather than formulaic beats meant to prop up unsubstantial eye candy.
The post-9/11 wars have been and should continue to be debated. Even now, the sentiment on both sides of the political aisle leans toward finally pulling out of Afghanistan for good. And even as I personally favor that sentiment, I remain morally conflicted about those we’d be abandoning if we left. Because after watching true stories like Lone Survivor, there’s a strong sense of humbling pride (if such a paradox can actually exist) to know that when poor Afghanis looked to see if anyone had their backs while being violently oppressed by the Taliban and terrorists, they turned and saw Americans.
- Drugs/Alcohol: None.
- Language/Profanity: Strong language is constant throughout, using a full range of profanities that include crude sexual slang.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: No sexual content, but some sexual innuendo phrases are used in jest during the film’s first pre-combat scenes.
- Violence/Other: Extreme, graphic war violence over a prolonged period, as well as in other individual moments. Multiple gunshot wounds and gun-related violence. People shot in all areas of the body, including multiple shots to heads. Men fall down steep rocky inclines, breaking bones severely. Big gashes cut in faces. A man has two fingers cut off. A bone protrudes from a leg. Knife used to remove shrapnel from leg. An explosion kills multiple men. Bloody/scarred bodies. A decapitation occurs off-screen. Graphic results of violence seen on bodies. Stabbings; a death by stabbing. Overall, intensely harrowing and graphic.