121 minutes | MPAA rating: R
A superior action film based on real events, “Lone Survivor” is a modern update of the classic “lost patrol” movie in which a small unit of soldiers is trapped behind enemy lines and, often, doomed to fight to the last man.
It was inspired by Operation Red Wings, a 2005 mission in which four Navy SEALs were dropped in the mountains of Afghanistan to locate and keep tabs on a Taliban war lord. As the title suggests, it didn’t go well.
The opening credits of writer/director Peter Berg’s action drama unfold against documentary footage of the grueling (some might say sadistic) training that potential SEALs must negotiate to become part of this elite fighting force. It’s so rough that bodies and spirits begin to break down. For some classes the dropout rate is 90 percent.
The ones who last are tough bastards.
The film proper begins with one of the SEALSs, Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), being evacuated by a rescue team. He’s been badly wounded and dies as the medics scramble to revive and stabilize him.
Berg’s screenplay, adapted from the non-fiction book by Luttrell and Patrick Robinson (obviously, Luttrell lived to tell the tale), then flashes back several days as the four members of Operation Red Wings are briefed and make preparations for their mission.
In addition to Luttrell they are Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster).
Employing a docudrama style, the film follows them on the mission. This is not a movie with a ton of subtext – it’s the war version of a police procedural.
Nor is there much character development. The four leads have all proven themselves in various projects, but here they’re less individuals than essential cogs in a well-oiled fighting machine.
But “Lone Survivor” does have a fascinating episode in which the SEALs capture three Afghan goat herders – clearly Taliban supporters – and debate what to do with them. Do they kill them? Let them go, even though they’re sure to notify the enemy of the Americans’ presence?
There are the official rules of engagement. And then there are the down-and-dirty rules of war.
From that point on “Lone Survivor” becomes a Middle Eastern Alamo, a series of incredibly violent encounters that see the Americans shot all to hell before succumbing.
Finally only Luttrell is left, on his last legs and pursued by the enemy. That’s when he is discovered by a local villager, Gulab (Ali Suliman), who selflessly shelters the American and defies the Taliban’s demands that he turn Luttrell over to them. Only the last-minute arrival of the cavalry – another SEAL team – prevents a massacre.
“Sole Survivor” gives a convincing approximation of what it’s like to be in the chaos of combat. And it leaves us with a real respect for the men who put it all on the line. It’s one of those instances in which the brotherhood of warriors transcends the political rights and wrongs that put them in harm’s way.
| Robert W. Butler