Avoiding a partisan view of war, Lone Survivor drops us into the middle of the conflict in Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter if we think these American troops should be there. Fact is they are there, and this is one of the many horrific scenarios that have played out because of it. The film recounts 2005’s ill-fated Operation Red Wings, adapted from the novel authored by now-retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. What Luttrell and his fallen brothers endured is depicted as appropriately hellish and chaotic, blending the brutality of Saving Private Ryan with the frenzy of Black Hawk Down; though the bookends surrounding the clash of the second act feel occasionally artificial.
Writer-director Peter Berg, with his best effort since 2004’s Friday Night Lights, opens the picture with real footage of SEAL training where intense men push themselves to their physical and emotional limit, straining, crying, and some quitting. Those that graduate float arm-in-arm in shallow waters, a baptism into the elite of the elite. It’s a captivating shot intimating the birth of warriors ready to march unfazed into the horrors and uncertainties of battle.
But these warriors are people, too. We’re introduced to four SEALs at a base outside Kabul – Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster). Characterizations are broad: Axelson chats online with the girl back home, the young Dietz loses a footrace to team leader Murphy, and Luttrell engages in playful mocking banter with the team, though all are dialed-in when planning their next mission. Lt. Cmdr. Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) walks them through an operation to capture or kill top Taliban target Ahmed Shah (Yousuf Azami).
The four pairs of boots hit the ground, hiking into the mountains to observe a village where Shah is thought to be hiding. Their cover is blown by passing goat herders, and the SEALs are faced with the decision to let them go, detain them, or “eliminate the potential threat.” Kitsch and Foster handle this scene well, the former choosing mercy without coming off as weak and the latter proposing “elimination” without appearing ruthless. The goat herders are released and soon the Americans are surrounded by a squadron of Taliban fighters.
At the heart of the film is an extended gunfight with the SEALs hopelessly outnumbered. There’s terror in the rain of bullets and explosions, and also in the silence between shots – painful pauses before the next inevitable wave of blasts. Berg stages the action beautifully, moving things fast enough to thrill and slowing down so we can get our bearings and gasp at the injuries being suffered. And they’re shown in great detail that shocks, but not gratuitously. Getting shot and tumbling down a mountain hurts badly, and the sound and editing make sure we don’t forget it. The four actors are all convincing, even if given little depth they each convey a mixture of sharpness and desperation, none of them crumbling into delirium or growing superhuman in the face of danger. This is a realistic open wound struggle, one that leaks blood until there’s nothing more to give. Even when the cavalry finally arrives, we’re reminded that it’s not so easy to swoop in and save the day.
When the fog of war finally lifts, Lone Survivor coasts a bit in the final act, gritty viscera replaced with a based-on-true-events pastiche that’s manipulated to fit neatly into a formulaic denouement. Berg treats the final 20 minutes of the film like an obligation, quickly hitting story beats with Luttrell being harbored by kindly Afghan villagers. There’s little building of real tension with standard shortcuts taken to pump up excitement: Luttrell methodically removes a piece of shrapnel from his leg, and Shah’s top lieutenant is turned into a snarling action movie villain.
Issues aside, Lone Survivor is a mostly steady, honest picture that shreds the right nerves by keeping humanity at the forefront. It is refreshingly apolitical, preferring blunt pragmatism over a “rah-rah-go-USA” approach. Patriotism and pro-military sentiment exists in honoring the bravery of those who lost their lives, but the film is not recruitment propaganda. Remembering these men as heroes and memorializing their sacrifice has nothing to do with romanticizing their deaths. It has everything to do with understanding that despite the odds these men soldiered on. Berg and his cast get that right.