by Tony Dayoub
Adapted from the book of the same name, Lone Survivor is the story of US Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and SEAL Team 10's failed mission to apprehend a notorious Taliban leader nearly 10 years ago in Afghanistan. Only the most insensitive would lack any empathy for Luttrell and his fellow soldiers if the brutal ordeal they go through occurred as depicted onscreen. Discovered on a treacherous mountaintop by shepherd's loyal to the Taliban, they are soon surrounded by greater numbers and the film proceeds to show how they are mowed down over the course of the next 40 minutes. But only the most jingoistic would celebrate this punishing endurance test, as anything more than a kind of cruel Passion of Private Ryan.
Director Peter Berg spends the first third of Lone Survivor introducing us to SEAL Team 10, Operation Red Wings leader LCDR Erik S. Kristensen (Eric Bana), field commander LT Michael P. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), SO1 Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), SO2 Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and SO2 Matthew "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster). Anyone who's seen a war movie knows this is the part of the film that's peppered with endearing personal details about the soldiers, like Murphy's continual interrogation of Luttrell regarding buying a horse for his fiancée or Dietz's concern that his new wife may be going overboard with paint color selection for their new home. There's also the requisite hijinks involving the mild hazing of the newest SEAL (Alexander Ludwig), required to recite Team 10's credo before by memory being fully accepted into the fold.
If I sound cynical, it's not because I don't respect the tremendous sacrifice of our servicemen in times of war. But it's hard not to view Lone Survivor as a muddle that's part recruitment propaganda and part anti-war screed. Berg launches his film with actual video footage of the grueling tests these men must undergo before becoming SEALs. He ends the film with a lengthy tribute to each man who died during Operation Red Wings. And in between, we have the first third of the film that invites young men looking for some kind of honest camaraderie to consider this kind of life as a serious option. But then there are those problematic 40 minutes where you witness the team picked off by faceless Taliban soldiers hiding in the trees.
It's hard not to feel manipulated when special, torturous attention is paid to the slow death of Dietz, for example. The casting of Hirsch, an accomplished actor to be sure, is particularly suspect because of the vast chasm between what the rugged young soldier actually looked like versus the baby-faced handsomeness of the man who plays him. It's as if Berg wants to compound the tragedy of Dietz's death with the horror of watching a particularly youthful actor get flayed alive by the bullets and shrapnel that come his way. None of the other studly actors in the group are immune to it either. By the time this attack is over, you'll be exhausted not just by the action on screen but by the amount of exhortation for relief you've indulged in.
The movie's lone survivor eventually finds refuge among friendlier Afghans, among a tribe that believes it is their duty to help anyone, friend or foe, in need. But even that seems like less of an attempt at balance and more of an example demonstrating how programmed this "primitive" culture is compared to our more "enlightened" one. Would Luttrell be protected had this culture been more indifferent? Berg seems to be caught somewhere between paying homage to these brave men and declaring that their sacrifice was pointless. I can't help but compare the movie to the equally brutal Black Hawk Down. The details of that film's mission are strikingly similar, but its director, Ridley Scott, had no compunctions about depicting its Delta Force protagonists as an equally faceless mass, casting his bunch of soldiers with few faces that really stood out as prominently as Wahlberg and the rest do here. Scott knew that even the most noble war is a diminishing exercise, reducing its combatants more likely into savage automatons than heroes. Lone Survivor can't seem to make up its mind.