Set in war-torn Afghanistan, Lone Survivor tells the bloody and brutal true story of a team of Navy SEALs on the ill-fated reconnaissance mission, Operation Red Wings.
With the title of the film giving away its outcome, director Patrick Berg portrays Marcus Luttrell’s account of what happened to him and his three hirsute compatriots on a rocky mountainside. Mark Walhberg plays Luttrell, with Taylor Kitsch as Michael Murphy, Ben Foster as Matthew Axelson and Emile Hirsch as Danny Dietz.
Dispatched on a mission to track a Taliban leader, the SEALs make their way to a covert position, giving them a view of the enemy camp. With everything under control, they crack jokes and talk about wives back home choosing colour schemes for their bathrooms. Then things take a turn for the worse.
By sheer chance, three goat herders stumble across them, in possession of a radio transmitter. Faced with a repercussion-loaded choice as to whether to kill them or let them go, they choose the latter. It’s not long before the inevitable happens and a brutal battle begins, with the Taliban hunting them down.
As the men fight tooth and nail, slowly but surely being cornered into oblivion, it’s hard to watch this all unravel and not ask yourself some pretty obvious moral questions. However, remove politics and propaganda from the equation, and there’s a genuinely gripping movie that tells a story of bravery and brotherhood.
Cinematically, the scenes in which the SEALs try to flee from their pursuers by hurling themselves down the rocky mountainside, smashing their bloodied and battered bodies on rocks and tree stumps are some of the most uncomfortable I’ve ever seen. It’s relentlessly bone crunching.
Berg is clearly a talented director. But the stunning sunset vistas he marries with an atmospheric Explosions in the Sky soundtrack seem like token artistic gestures in comparison to the hammering home of gore and gun fire. As a visual narrative, it doesn’t quite achieve the seamless heights he achieved while exploring similar themes of masculine camaraderie in Friday Night Lights.
The stellar cast also does a good job of portraying archetypal American tough guys. But so devoid are the characters on screen of any real depth or story, that for all their heroism, they’re rendered into nothing more than macho fodder. Clearly, that’s exactly the antithesis of the truth, especially when we see real-life photographs of them before the closing credits.
Aside from the myriad political questions that arise with such a film, there are just as many basic ones that you find yourself asking too. You can’t help but wonder how different things could have been for the men of Operation Red Wings had their radio communication worked effectively. Had they not encountered the goat herders on that remote mountainside. Had things just not gone devastatingly wrong.
In many ways, the dialogue between the men is symbiotic of the film as a whole. It’s brash, clichéd and everything you’d expect from a war movie full of guns and ammo. But, it’s made clear from the very outset what’s about to play out, with stark footage of the real-life, physically extreme training of SEALs leading you into the action that follows.
There’s a lot to admire about this movie, but at the same time, much to consider. Whatever the political undercurrent at work, every so often you have to remind yourself that this happened to four young men, no doubt the brightest stars of loving families. Right or wrong in its occurrence, that experience is a story worth telling.