The triumphant quality of recent fact-based films about US special forces operations—“Zero Dark Thirty” and “Captain Phillips” spring immediately to mind—is muted but not entirely suppressed in Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor,” a recreation of a 2005 mission by Navy SEALs in Afghanistan that went horribly wrong but ended with the heroic extrication of one of its members. Comparisons to Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” are inevitable, and though its scale is smaller, Berg’s similarly draining film doesn’t suffer overmuch from them—though in the end it fails to address many issues it might well have taken on.
The picture is effectively a celebration of the valor of Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), who was one of four SEALs involved in Operation Red Wings, which involved the group being inserted into territory in remote Kunar province to locate, and target, a particularly vicious militant, Ahmad Shah (Yousif Azami). Luttrell’s comrades in arms are team leader Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Gunner’s Mate Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Sonar Tech Matthew, or “Axe,” Axelson (Ben Foster), all serving under Commander Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana), who remains behind at the base, waiting to hear of their progress.
Considerable time is spent establishing the rough-natured camaraderie of the men as well as their expertise at their jobs, which quickly enables them to identify their quarry amid a large group of fighters in a nearby town. The operation quickly goes south, however, not simply because the mountainous terrain wreaks havoc with communications but because a trio of men from the village blunder onto the men’s position while taking their herd of goats out to forage. The SEALs have little difficulty in taking the goatherds captive, but argue among themselves about what to do, finally deciding to follow the established rules of engagement by letting them go and quickly retreating to higher ground where they could presumably defend themselves until reinforcements arrived.
That decision brings Ahmad Shah’s fighters down upon them in full force, leading to the centerpiece of the film—a harrowingly detailed, frequently gruesome sequence in which all the men except Luttrell are killed after suffering multiple injuries (from rifles, grenade launchers and falls down steep precipices). But they take a great many of the attackers along with them in scenes that unfortunately recall the ones in old westerns when massive numbers of Indians swarm around the beleaguered cavalrymen, only to be picked off by single well-placed shots. (By contrast, the three SEALs survive repeated wounds before finally succumbing.) The downing of a would-be rescue helicopter involves even more casualties. Luttrell, seriously hurt, stumbles away, closely pursued by the Taliban. He becomes the lone survivor of the title, his fate determined not merely by the eventual arrival of substantial American forces but by the intervention of the Afghan equivalent of the “good German” depicted in many post-World War II films.
These allusions to the conventions of westerns and WWII movies aren’t meant to be flippant; indeed, “Lone Survivor” does a powerful job of depicting the incredible combat skill, amazing courage, profound loyalty and unbelievable tenacity of not only Luttrell and the rest of his team, but of the others who lost their lives trying to save them. And it rightly reminds us that many Afghans are people of honor and principle who shouldn’t be drawn with a single brush.
And yet “Lone Survivor” ultimately becomes a tale of triumph snatched from the jaws of tragedy—with the triumph, complete with a wide-eyed little boy shown at every opportunity and the arrival of the cavalry at the last minute sending the attackers scurrying away, coming close to trivializing what’s preceded. The patriotic card is played repeatedly, and viewers are invited to depart with a deep feeling of admiration for the men who have served the country so well, and of the American determination to leave no man behind.
There’s nothing wrong with such an overtly passionate approach, of course, and yet one might ask whether it doesn’t leave fundamental questions unaddressed. The rules of engagement are touched upon as the men debate the fate of the villagers they’ve captured, but the broader issue of how Operation Red Wings was so ill-planned to start with isn’t. Beyond that, there isn’t the slightest suggestion that continued US military involvement in Afghanistan in 2005 might have been misguided in the first place. (After all, this operation took place nearly four years after the initial response to 9/11 there—and after a decision had been taken to expand operations into Iraq.) Perhaps films that raise these kinds of matters will have to wait until after the troops are finally withdrawn from Afghanistan completely; pictures critical of the Korean and Vietnam wars—even World War I—became possible only after some passage of time. But filmmakers ought not to ignore them forever.
Within the considerable strictures of the approach the film takes, however, “Lone Survivor” is well done. Berg, cinematographer Tobias Schliessler and editor Colby Parker, Jr. certainly achieve a “you are there” effect, bringing visceral immediacy to the action sequences. The actors—and presumably some stuntmen—certainly fulfill the considerable physical demands of their parts, and though one might have wished for greater subtlety in the individual characterizations, at least they’re differentiated among themselves, with Wahlberg’s Luttrell the natural conciliator, Kitsch’s Murphy the voice of principle, Hirsch’s Dietz the somewhat callow rookie and Foster’s Axelson the steely, no-nonsense workman.
One has to admire the way in which “Lone Survivor” captures the intensity of the 2005 mission and its aftermath. And yet one may regret that it fails to go beyond first-rate reenactment of this terrible episode to a deeper assessment of how and why it happened in the broader context of the war.
As a matter of cinematic interest, it’s entirely possible that this picture sets a new high for sheer number of producers–nine “regular” producers and fully twenty-five if you add executive and co-producers to the mix. What’s he proper name for a military unit of that size?