The title of Lone Survivor, Peter Berg’s recounting of the experiences of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell in Afghanistan in 2005 (adapted by Berg from a best-selling memoir by Luttrell and Patrick Robinson) gives away the game right up front. Of the four young SEALs we get to know in the course of this tense chronicle of a mission gone wrong, only one will make it to the last frame alive—and given the prominence of Mark Wahlberg’s bruised, wary face on the poster, we have a pretty good guess which one. But Lone Survivor’s lack of suspense never works against it. If anything, the fact that the outcome is, at least roughly, known in advance only adds to the film’s sickening tension, the atmosphere of preordained doom through which its characters seem to move.
At times the writer-director’s respect for the SEALs who charge into this doom leads him into a tone that’s at once jingoistic and clichéd: The opening montage of real-life Navy SEALs in training isn’t above silhouetting its self-proclaimed “band of brothers” against the rising sun, recruitment ad-style. And yet it’s clear that Berg is no apologist for the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. During the movie’s hard-to-watch middle section, at the height of the daylong Taliban shootout it depicts with such stark realism, Lone Survivor is almost an antiwar film: It evokes the confusion, panic, and raw fear of battle with such vividness you want to run out of the theater. Ultimately, Berg seems less concerned with this war in particular than he is with the experience of fighting in any war. There’s little in the way of political or historical context, and virtually no ideological bluster. Lone Survivor is a down-and-dirty exercise in vicarious battle trauma.
The film even begins with a kind of warning to the viewer, in the form of a voice-over from the just-rescued Luttrell (Wahlberg), who’s given first aid in a helicopter as we hear his thoughts about what drives some men to serve in the world’s most dangerous and frightening places. “We wanted that fight at the highest volume,” says Luttrell, as defibrillator paddles are applied to his heavily lacerated chest. “The loudest, darkest, coldest, most unpleasant of the unpleasant fights.”
Things will get plenty unpleasant soon enough, but in the interim, there’s a flashback to a comparatively peaceful morning a few days earlier, as the four men who will become the film’s focus are waking up in their plywood cubicles at Bagram Air Base the morning before Operation Red Wings begins. Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) is the special-ops team leader, a taciturn, modest man so respected by his men he’s become the stuff of camp legend. His team includes communications specialist Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), Gunner’s Mate Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Luttrell, the medic. They’re dispatched via helicopter to a steep, rocky hillside near a remote village while their commander, Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana), monitors the action from base camp, eventually intervening in a rescue attempt. The purpose of the mission: to locate and execute an important Taliban target, Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami.)
As Mike observes dryly on hearing his higher-ups’ description of the plan, this seemingly straightforward mission has “a lot of moving parts”—including the presence of many Afghans near the village who have nothing to do with the Taliban. When the SEALs cross paths with an old man and a young boy herding goats, they hold them prisoner for a while, debating whether to let them go, leave them tied to a tree, or—in the chilling wording of the increasingly gung-ho Axe—“terminate the complication.” It’s the closest the film comes to a consideration of the ethics of war, though it’s noteworthy that even Luttrell’s plea to free the unarmed villagers is motivated as much by pragmatism as by altruism: “CNN, OK? ‘SEALs kill kids.’ That’s the fuckin’ story, forever.”
As he’s proved in Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom (in the spirit of New Year’s forgiveness, let us not speak of Battleship), Berg’s specialty is showing groups of young men in extreme duress, tested to the limits of their physical endurance and courage. At times he also tests the endurance of the audience. In one scene, the fall of the entire team down a steep, rocky cliff is shown in gruesome detail, one bone-breaking thwack at a time. Just minutes later, they fall down another cliff, and we witness it all again. And if someone receives medical attention in this movie, you can be sure every moment of DIY wound stitching or shrapnel removal will be fully documented in close-up, with strict adherence to the autopsy reports.
Berg tested his own limits, and those of his cast, too. Together, they underwent a version of Navy SEAL training in preparation for the shoot, and their dedication to documenting the physical and emotional rigors of battle—and the intensity and intimacy of the bonds among SEALs—is complete. Though a few of the characters could have been better fleshed out in the script, every performance is committed, understated, and superb. Even if we know from the mission’s outset that three of these four courageous (yet terrified) young men are doomed to die, when the time comes, it’s wrenching to lose each one.
There are, in essence, no women in Lone Survivor (a photo of Axe’s fiancée taped to a computer stands in for the wives and girlfriends the men have left behind at home), and the Afghans we encounter come in only two moral flavors: the ruthless Taliban warlord and his cohort, or the generous, self-sacrificing villager (Ali Suliman) who, with the help of his saucer-eyed young son, offers Luttrell food and a place to hide from the Taliban. But despite Berg’s narrow focus on the macho crucible of warfare, Lone Survivor doesn’t strike me as what one unimpressed critic has called “a jingoistic snuff film.” Even if its SEALs are sometimes lensed in golden hues, it’s hard to imagine sitting through its onslaught of physical and moral violence—including an exchange in which one dying SEAL expresses his regret that “we didn’t kill more of these motherfuckers”—without being sickened by the waste, carnage, and spiritual degradation of war.