Without question, Lone Survivor is one of the best films of 2013. Given the subject matter, the immediate comparison by most will be to Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, largely based on the story’s extreme nature and sheer brutality. Lone Survivor, however, feels far more stripped down, exposed and naked. It doesn’t blink and it holds your heart in its hand for two hours, squeezing ever tighter as the story of four Navy SEALs and their 2005 mission in the mountains of Afghanistan unfolds, ending (and this is no spoiler as much as it is preparation) as the biggest single loss of life for Naval Special Warfare forces since World War II.
Director Peter Berg (The Kingdom) has adapted Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell‘s first person memoir, telling the story of what happened to Luttrell and his three fellow SEALs as a trio of Taliban-loyal goat herders compromised their mission to locate and identify a senior Taliban leader. Faced with a moral dilemma as to what to do with their unexpected captives — kill them, tie them up or let them go — the decision is made to follow the rules of war. They set them free and attempt to re-establish communications, abort the mission and get home. Time, as it would turn out, was not on their side and this film does its damnedest to make sure the audience fully realizes the weight of that decision.
The four men that make up the reconnaissance team, code named Operation Red Wings, are Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell. An opening credit sequence features actual Navy SEAL training, suggesting the kind of hardened men we’re about to spend the next two hours with, and the following 15 minutes set the stage for what’s to come as much as giving us a sense of who these men are beyond their occupation. Much of this may be cliched, but relish these quieter moments, get to know these men, because you are about to go to war and it isn’t going to be pretty.
It won’t be for another hour and forty minutes until your heart stops beating out of your chest and you’ll finally be able to close your gaping mouth. I haven’t read Luttrell’s book, but having listened to him recount the events on “60 Minutes” (watch here), knowing he was a consultant on the film and even has a small cameo role, the sense of authenticity in what you’re watching is heightened. Clearly dramatic license was taken, but to get the impression the gun fight bears any resemblance to what actually took place is frightening.
Lone Survivor is relentless and hardly affords you the opportunity to catch your breath. Berg places you squarely in the middle of the battle as these four brothers in arms find themselves taking on a horde of Taliban soldiers. This is persistant, guerilla-style filmmaking at its finest and very well may be the defining, narrative film to this point regarding the Afghan war.
Best of all, the film doesn’t bend to any political agenda or even get caught up in “ra ra” American exceptionalism. This isn’t to say it doesn’t have a message, the message is clear. It’s a film about brotherhood and never giving up and in this respect I think does well to honor the men portrayed in the film and I’m equally happy to know Luttrell was involved in its making for that very reason. Beyond that, the third act delivers a message you have to see to believe. Until the final picture is seen before the end credits roll, you just might not believe what you’ve just seen.
As much as Berg deserves credit for his direction, his frequent cinematographer, Tobias A. Schliessler, has his camera in the middle of the action at all times, whip panning from one bullet to the next. This is an “in the middle of the shit” film and Berg and Schliessler put us there and leave us there until you’re absolutely spent.
A lot of credit also goes to the cast. Wahlberg, Kitsch, Hirsch and Foster have a tough task, which is to shed their pretty boy, Hollywood appearances and do so without overacting. These are roles that actors typically get so caught up in the stereotypical “hooyah” aspect of the characters they forget they are playing real people. All four of our leads here are entrenched in their characters, perhaps because of the intensity of the film itself, but whatever the reason I was all in.
What’s most astonishing is that despite the harrowing nature of the story and how sad it is, I also found it uplifting and inspiring. It’s a journey into hell and yet I’ve watched it twice so far and could watch it again right now. It’s the men and their code of honor that bonds them. It could also, very easily, be the comfort of knowing I am safe here in my house in Seattle while these men risk their lives for my freedom and with that comes a sense of equal parts pride, sorrow and shame. With a movie like this it’s almost impossible to put into words why it affected me as much as it did. The point is, it’s a feeling.
Lone Survivor made me feel close to these men, which is all you can ask of a film of this sort. Just in the telling of their story the film needn’t deal with political agendas or commentaries, the story alone is enough, allowing you to come to your own conclusions. It speaks to the complexity of the war that is being waged and the participants on both sides. Granted, many of the characters are shaped as stereotypes, but those that matter bring an emotional weight to the narrative that can’t be denied or ignored.