“Lone Survivor” Movie Review

     Based on the book by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, director Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” tells the true story of a four man SEAL team sent on Operation Red Wing, a mission with the objective to kill feared Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd.  Whether you’ve read Luttrell’s book or not, this isn’t a film where there is really anything I could give away here as far as the result of the mission.  The title actually takes care of that and if you still don’t know where this film is heading, the identity of the “Lone Survivor” is revealed less than 5 minutes into the film as he is evacuated from the mountains of Afghanistan clinging to life.  Just as you went into “Titanic” already knowing the outcome, Berg doesn’t seem concerned with how the film ends, perhaps because this is about one battle within a war that had many of them.  What’s important here is how these men persevered against all odds that day, as well as what went wrong.  When operations like this one are dissected after the fact, the lessons learned are what help our armed forces succeed in the future and there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the story Berg tells in “Lone Survivor”

     The initial scenes of the film feature a montage of BUDS (Basic Underwater Diving School) trainees enduring some of the most grueling and torturous training you will ever see.  Every three or four scenes of these training exercises then leads to one in which a trainee is ringing the bell, signifying he is quitting.  I have to figure there is no shame in not making it through BUDS and becoming a Navy SEAL, since the type of work these men do simply isn’t for everyone.  Berg expertly includes this real life footage to make not only that point, but also as a mechanism that foreshadows what is to come.  No matter what the instructors do to push the limits of a trainee in BUDS, the consequences to the body pale in comparison to what Luttrell and his SEAL teammates endure later in the film.  It’s likely no trainee realizes this at the time, but there is no doubting the final product.  The most impressive aspect of these performances under fire is the sheer composure each man demonstrates while under fire.  Few men have that attribute.

     In sports, players and coaches ofter refer to “home field advantage” as something which can help lead teams to victory.  This is often not the case on the field or on the court where talent normally trumps the home crowd, but in the case of fighting the enemy on his home turf, the advantage for the indigenous population is obvious.  Perhaps no scene in “Lone Survivor” is more telling than the sequence which sets off the most significant events in the film.  Once arrived on a mountain top overlooking the village their target occupies, the SEAL team encounters three goat herders who are found to be Taliban members.  They must decide whether to kill them and go forward with their mission or let them go and risk both the mission and their safety.  Sadly, one of the team members cites the “rules of engagement” as per the Geneva Convention which regulates the treatment of enemy prisoners of war.  With everything on the line, they seem more concerned with being a headline on CNN, rather than thinking of their own safety and the merits of the mission.  Why is it the enemy never seems to follow these rules like we do?

     When I talk about “home field advantage” for the enemy, no scene demonstrates this to awe inspiring result than the teenage Taliban child traversing the jagged downside of a mountain with all the grace of a professional Parkour runner.  He makes it down the mountain with the lightning speed of someone who knows every step he needs to take three steps in advance, as if he’s gone down that mountain a thousand times.  In contrast, the SEAL team struggles mightily attempting to navigate through this same terrain, with one team member badly spraining his ankle after slipping on a loose rock.  Now with what seems like hundreds of Taliban fighters hunting them, it would seem the playing field was leveled significantly.  The SEALS are clearly more talented and better equipped, yet they are no longer training on Coronado Island outside of San Diego, rather they are fighting the enemy who makes their living finding the best way to move about these mountains on foot, hunting their prey.

     Once the SEAL team makes enemy contact, Berg stages a thirty plus minute sequence which has to be some of the most brutal and realistic ever shot.  This isn’t in the epic scale seen in “Saving Private Ryan”, instead Berg focuses on the team tactics and takes us through their movements under fire shot by shot.  As I mentioned earlier, the amount of composure and pin point accuracy these men have while suffering multiple gun shot wounds is a true testament to the term “survivor” that we so loosely use in everyday conversation.  Frankly, I don’t know how these men survived falling down the same mountain the Taliban child glided down like “Spiderman”.  Berg graphically depicts the men falling not once, but twice, putting his makeup effects and sound effects teams on overtime to create the grisly limb snapping injuries these men were subjected to.  Put simply, Berg has created the most realistic depiction of a four man fire team’s outnumbered fight against the enemy ever put to film.

     As Lutrell, the ever dependable Mark Wahlberg performs admirably as a man who’s job it is to fight until his very last breath.  Rounding out the SEAL team, Taylor Kitsch (as Michael Murphy), Emile Hirsch (as Danny Dietz), and Ben Foster (as Matt Axelson) all give outstanding performances in roles which are both physical as well as emotional.  As an audience, we aren’t given much to chew on as far as the back story of each individual character as each only gives a glimpse into their personal lives by way of the photographs on the walls where they sleep and the brief mentioning of their significant others.  Berg accomplishes the characterization of each team member by way of several crucial scenes in the Afghan mountains in which the group shares a number of very human traits the audience will relate to.  You get the idea these guys didn’t get a lot of down time to focus on what was waiting for them at home.

     When you try and put a film like “Lone Survivor” into perspective, it’s important to try and determine it’s meaning.  Mature audiences will have no problem harnessing the serious subject matter here and will understand the importance Berg’s decision to not hold back on the violent nature of Luttrell’s book.  For the couch warriors and “Call of Duty” players out there, what you will see in this film is not “cool” or “badass” and this is also not a recruiting piece for the Navy SEALS and should not be viewed by young children who think their calling is to someday be a “Frog Man”.  The themes explored in “Lone Survivor” are best suited for those who will understand the accomplishments by these Navy SEALS come as a result of hard work, determination, the ability to stay calm under pressure, and an undying human spirit.  I applaud Peter Berg for making this film, but the cynic in me fears our younger “everyone gets a trophy” generation will sensationalize the violence and miss the film’s meaning entirely.  GRADE: A