The debate has raged over whether “Lone Survivor,” Peter Berg’s harrowing account of 2005’s disastrous Operation Red Wings, is jingoistic or a condemnation of a U.S. military action that resulted in the loss of 19 Americans at the hands of tenacious Taliban insurgents. But the real discourse should be over who was the bigger hero: Marcus Luttrell, the badly wounded Navy SEAL for whom the film is titled; or the brave Pashtun tribesman who rescued Luttrell and fought valiantly to protect him once the Taliban came looking for “the one who got away”?
Either way, “Lone Survivor” stands as an outstanding account of bravery and comradeship under fire, with acts of selflessness abounding. And Berg (“Friday Night Lights”) could not have presented it more humanistically, or with more compassion for those who gave their lives on a mission that was doomed from the start.
“This feels like a cursed op,” observes one of the four SEALS originally dropped onto Sawtalo Sar, the rugged mountain near Asadabad where insurgent leader Ahmad Shah was believed to be commanding a large band of Taliban fighters. “No curse,” Luttrell replies, “just Afghanistan.” But cursed they were, as Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and fellow SEALs Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) and their leader, Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), encounter nothing but horrible luck after confirming Shah’s presence.
You name it, it goes wrong, beginning with the unexpected arrival of three goat herders, who are immediately taken prisoner. But what to do with them? Let them go and risk them running to the Taliban? Tie them up and leave them to the ravenous wolves and snakes? Or, simply kill them, even though two of them are just boys?
The resulting tactical and ethical debate between the four soldiers is riveting and surprisingly thought-provoking for what begins as a gung-ho war picture. That’s because like “Homeland,” Berg’s script (based on Luttrell’s book, “Lone Survivor”) isn’t afraid to explore the ambiguities of the war on terror, up to and including worries about how any actions will be portrayed in the press.
As it turns out, the soldiers make the wrong choice. And before you know it, are surrounded by heavily armed Taliban. The ensuing firefight lasts nearly an hour, and Berg presents it in vividly gory detail, with bullets and shrapnel from RPGs ripping through flesh that hasn’t already been pierced by brutal tumbles down mountainsides.
The only question isn’t if these four men will die, it’s a question of how many bullets it will take to kill them. And believe me, it’s quite a lot. But the toughness and resilience is nothing compared to the loyalty that bonds them, as they prove time and again that they will do anything to protect the other.
Page 2 of 2 - What’s fascinating is that this code between brothers doesn’t end with the deaths of Luttrell’s three buddies. It continues just as intensely between the Pashtun tribesman, who are just as willing to put their own lives on the line to protect Luttrell. And that loyalty is as much an education for Luttrell as it is for us, as it slowly dawns on him that his belief that all Afghans are his enemy is severely misinformed.
Wahlberg’s outstanding performance only makes the realization all the more poignant. He makes you feel what Luttrell feels. In fact, the entire movie puts you in the bloodied boots of the SEALs, fighting the impulse to duck every bullet as if you were right there on the battlefield with them. Most of that is Berg’s outstanding direction, but it’s also due to the intense performances by the four principal actors, all working at the top of their game. By the time the end comes, their characters are so fully fleshed out that you completely forget they are actors, creating a verisimilitude that makes the soldiers’ deaths all the more painful, especially once you realize they essentially died in vain.
It’s the heroics, though, that stick with you. And whether it’s to be interpreted as a pro military message or a plea for peace is entirely up to the viewer. But either way, it really doesn’t matter, because the heart of “Lone Survivor” isn’t in who wins or who loses, but in who is the bravest and most humane. And Berg generously provides us many heroes to choose from. But the full impact doesn’t come until the very end, when we see actual photos of Luttrell’s three comrades and the 16 others who died trying to save them. If seeing their faces and realizing how much was lost doesn’t shake you, nothing ever will.
LONE SURVIVOR (R for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language.) Cast includes Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster and Eric Bana. Written and directed by Peter Berg. Grade: B+