Lone Survivor ✮✮✮
by Glenn Lovell
It comes as no surprise who lives, who dies. Mark Wahlberg’s haggard face is on the poster and the film is based on the memoir of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, whom Wahlberg plays. In the opening moments we see Luttrell being airlifted out of a battle zone in northeastern Afghanistan. He’s fighting for his life, but we know he’ll survive to write the book that this movie is based on. (A few weeks ago, “60 Minutes” also played spoiler by detailing Luttrell’s story and the ill-fated 2005 mission that almost took his life.)
So much for the surprise factor …
Where “Lone Survivor” excels is in the action department. It’s one of the best (read grimmest) war pictures since “Platoon,” with choreographed carnage to match that found in the Oliver Stone movie as well as “Full Metal Jacket.” Director Peter Berg, who also adapted the Luttrell book, does a bang-up job on the battle sequences. Some are as grueling, as in-your-face excruciating, as the running gunfights in “The Wild Bunch.” Indeed, in places this film feels more like a revisionist Peckinpah western than a standard issue war movie.
“Lone Survivor,” which departs from the Luttrell account in a number of key areas, including Luttrell’s rescue, places us smack in the middle of a hellacious firefight between four SEALs and what feels like 40 or 50 Taliban. Luttrell, Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) have been airlifted into the rugged mountains of Kunar Province to assassinate a “bad guy,” a Taliban commander “responsible for killing Marines.”
Operation Red Wings is a textbook mission ‒ right up until the moment that the soldiers run into three goat herders. Do they kill the civilians or let them go and compromise the mission? After a brief but spirited debate ‒ Luttrell cites the military’s “Rules of Engagement” as well as potential blowback on CNN ‒ the Americans do the right thing. And pay dearly for their compassion.
In classic war-movie fashion no effort is made to humanize the enemy ‒ the Taliban warlord is ID’d by his missing earlobes, his turbaned soldiers are caught darting from tree to tree, in extreme-long shot. In contrast, the four principals are neatly differentiated by their contrasting personalities: Murphy the leader is cool, paternal; Axelson is the twitchy loose cannon; Dietz is younger, more sensitive. Probably because he’s telling the story and suffers from survivor’s guilt, Luttrell, the medic, is suspiciously gung-ho, as if he’s constantly reassuring himself that he has what it takes, that he won’t let down his brothers-in-arms.
Like the recent “Act of Valor,” also about a SEAL unit, “Lone Survivor” had the backing of the Pentagon, which loaned weapons, ordinance, Chinook and Apache helicopters. This, of course, can be a double-edged sword. The film benefits in terms of verisimilitude but sometimes comes off sounding like a “Be all you can be” recruiting tool. The message, reiterated: “No matter how dark it gets, you are never out of the fight.”
This is not an anti-war film. It’s a pro-military preparedness film. Berg (“Friday Night Lights,” “Battleship”) never wavers in his belief in the U.S. mission or the men who carry it out. When the return fire is too heavy and the SEALs can no longer stand their ground, Murphy orders, “We’re falling back!” Luttrell peers over the edge of a cliff and, though he already knows the answer, requests verification. “You mean we’re falling off?!”
Then, one by one over they go.
LONE SURVIVOR With Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana. Directed, written by Peter Berg from the book by Marcus Luttrell. 121 min. Rated R (for nonstop profanity, gruesome battle carnage)