War films that don't star John Wayne typically do not do well in cinemas. Scratch that, with the exception of Saving Private Ryan, these movies don't do well. Whether it's just too soon or depicting an unpopular war, war films are not something audiences clamor to see. Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker took a step in a different direction by aiming at recreating a soldier's experience rather than shaping a political slant out of the story.
Aiming for a picture that captures the brotherly bonds of being a Navy SEAL rather than making a comment on the war in Afghanistan, Peter Berg goes the same route as Bigelow. Based on Marcus Luttrell's real-life account of "Operation Red Wings," the director spares no detail in his recreation of the failed mission to capture and kill Taliban target Ahmad Shah.
Four members of SEAL Team 10 were tasked with the mission to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. These four men are Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster). From the very beginning of Lone Survivor the audience is witness to the close, intense bonds that SEALs forge over the course of their training. It's a nice use of visual shorthand that keeps the runtime brief without cutting valuable material elsewhere.
The mission is doomed almost from the start. Bad intel places the four SEALs in a Taliban stronghold with no air support or extraction options. Shah is within their sights, but the shot is too far to take. Communications with HQ are lost, and bad news keep pouring on like Murphy's law was created specifically for this operation. Three local villagers stumble across the SEALs hideout and a decision no one wants to make is suddenly forced upon them: kill them, or let them go back and give up their hiding spot.
There is much less build-up to the action here than in other films. What begins merely as an scouting expedition turns into an assault against a small army. Options are limited: they either go down the mountain or wait for communication links to go back up. Left with no recourse and no backup, Luttrell and crew decide to fight their way out.
Fun fact: without Battleship this film wouldn't exist, so the next time someone asks if there is any redeeming value to that story you can tell them that. Peter Berg obviously holds the material in reverence and, for the most part, he does justice to it. Berg has a passion for the warrior culture that is the Navy SEALs and he captures the intensity of fighting under fire with brothers-in-arms. The four are never rattled, they just go about the business of trying to get home in one piece. Though we know that most won't.
Titling the film Lone Survivor reveals almost too much about the course of the story. From the very beginning it's obvious that only one soldier makes it, and that informs the very bleak outlook for the rest of the movie. To its credit that also removes the hyper-exaggerated, move-like aspects of the film as well. The only remaining cliche being some of the dialogue during Axleson's last stand, but they sound reasonable coming from Ben Foster's mouth.
Lone Survivor does not possess the complete authenticity of something along the lines of Act of Valor, but great acts of courage are still to be found. These four men gave it all and that is not lost on the director.
Yet, before the term propaganda is thrown about let's stop and consider that the poor decisions made up the food chain that doom Operation Red Wings and the devastating losses that occurred are hardly a recruiting tool. What's more is that a great deal of the story gives credit to the Pashtun villagers that takes Luttrell in and protects him from Taliban forces, particularly Gulab (Ali Suliman), the sacrifice of those villagers earns a special mention before the credits roll.
This film is a hard watch, but certainly a worthy one.