Some of the finest contributions to 20th century film have captured the brutality and complexity of war, showing both its devastating psychological consequences and the savagery of battle. From Apocalypse Now to Full Metal Jacket to Saving Private Ryan, Hollywood has brought us some incredible showcases of war. Most of the war movies I’ve seen were set during the Vietnam War, but the Civil War and World Wars 1 and 2 have been represented, among others. While the jungle of Vietnam is a familiar backdrop, few movies have depicted the mountainous terrain of the more recent war in Afghanistan until now. Lone Survivor tells the real life account of a group of SEALS who fought courageously in pursuit of high-profile Taliban ally Ahmad Shah in 2005.
Actor/director Peter Berg (Battleship) dramatizes the events of Operation Red Wing, a military action in Afghanistan that claimed the lives of all but one SEAL, lone survivor Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg, 2 Guns). Let me preface by saying that any criticism I have is from a purely cinematic perspective; I am thankful for the men and women who serve our country and understand full well the incredible sacrifice that was made in that military operation. I’m only discussing Berg’s interpretation of what happened, and I found the film mostly effective. He opens the movie with ostensibly real footage of the grueling preparation endured by all SEALS, revealing the unique fortitude required of the men who carry out some of our most dangerous military operations.
We are introduced to the unit in Afghanistan, and the prevailing mood is one of fraternal camaraderie. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, Savages), Danny Deitz (Emile Hirsch, Savages), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster, Contraband) join Luttrell, and the band of brothers couldn’t be any closer. When they are apprised of the mission, it’s go time. Luttrell, Murphy, Axe and Deitz are embedded in the mountainous terrain, and soon locate their target Shah. They are hidden in dry foliage when a local goat herder and two boys stumble upon them. In a pivotal moment that ultimately determines their fate, Lieutenant Mike Murphy must decide whether they let the party go on their way, detain them, or eliminate them all together.
When Murphy releases the party, they promptly alert Shah and his well-armed band of locals to the soldiers’ presence. A firefight ensues, followed by an extended and gut-wrenching battle, as the SEALS are outgunned and perilously exposed. They suffer devastating injuries, including broken legs, shrapnel, and bullet wounds. It was nearly unbearable to watch, including one scene where they literally hurl themselves over a cliff, tumbling down the mountain as bone meets rock. The human body and the human spirit weren’t meant to endure such turmoil and trauma, and the viewer is constantly reminded that SEALS are simply cut from a different cloth.
Lone Survivor succeeded in its accuracy, but I can’t help but compare it to the previously mentioned standouts in the genre. While it was effectively authentic, it was almost too straightforward. There wasn’t much character or plot development, but I suppose that wasn’t Berg’s intention. I think the goal of depicting Operation Red Wing was achieved, but I’m not sure this movie is emblematic of an era like the great Vietnam movies were. However, the casting was excellent, with Wahlberg, Kitsch, and Foster masterfully capturing the bravery, courage and heroism of these real-life fallen soldiers. Grade: B.