What happens when abiding by the rules puts soldiers in greater danger than the mission justifies?
The phrase “laws of war” has always seemed a bit antithetical to the act of combat itself. While in battle, it is understood by most sovereign nations that there are agreed upon rules or guidelines—the protection of Red Cross or medical workers, handling of prisoners of war, etc.—that must be upheld. What happens, though, when abiding by those rules puts soldiers in greater danger than the mission (or expected outcome) justifies? This conflict is at the center of Lone Survivor, based on the tense and brutal true story of four U.S. Navy SEALs who found themselves stuck behind enemy lines in 2005.
Directed by Peter Berg and based on the book by Marcus Luttrell, the only SEAL who survived the horrendous experience, Lone Survivor performs an impressive highwire act as it balances the reality of what happened while neither condemning nor glorifying war itself. With films like The Kingdom and Hancock, Berg has proven himself to be a talented and exciting action director. (Let’s all just pretend Battleship didn’t happen.) Friday Night Lights alone justifies giving him more behind-the-camera projects to flex his love of steadycam cinematography and stark scene composition.
On June 28, 2005, a four-man team of Navy SEALs was dropped into the mountains of Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. Their mission was to neutralize an important Taliban target named Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami). The four men were Lieutenant Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Second Class Petty Officer Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), and Gunner’s Mate Second Class Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch). Almost as soon as the men reach their destination, they realize the mission is more complicated than anyone had anticipated. Instead of facing Shah and a small cadre of bodyguards, they encounter a small army of Taliban soldiers. Making matters worse, their radio equipment is practically useless, with all reception being blacked out from the surrounding mountains.
Their mission must be abandoned, though, when a goat herder and his American-hating grandson stumble on the SEALs as they are resting. What should the team do? If they kill the men, they will be guilty of war crimes and committing a morally inexcusable murder. If they let them go, the Taliban soldiers will be alerted to their position and will surely descend on them with much more firepower than the four SEALs have in their possession. After each man has said his piece, Murphy, as ranking officer, decides to set free the goat herders. From there, the SEALS make a mad dash up the mountains in hopes of making contact with the extraction team before the Taliban can find them.
The film boasts fine performances by our four lead actors, especially Foster who, as per usual, is the most “in the moment” of anyone on screen. Kitsch, surprisingly, is quite good, too, though his Keanu Reeves-esque delivery camouflages his intensity. Wahlberg, whose character is the only one to survive, is our protagonist in many ways and does justice to Luttrell. The only weak spot comes near the end of the film at one of the tensest moments when Wahlberg goes from serious-faced Wahlberg to I’m-in-a-comedy-now-Wahlberg. It is a misguided choice, and Berg should have corrected it.
The other hero of the story is one of the peaceful Afghani villagers who saves Luttrell’s life. Gulab, played by Ali Suliman, has seen the horrors wrought by the Taliban and takes a stand against them. Speaking no English, Gulab communicates to Luttrell that he is a trustworthy friend, traits made believable through Suliman’s excellent performance.
Berg does a great job of handling the combat scenes, keeping every perspective active while never losing the audience. We also bounce back and forth from the firefight on the mountains with the SEALs’ base, where Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) is desperately trying to figure out what went wrong and how he can save his soldiers. As he did with The Kingdom, Berg manages to keep the tension as high as possible while never becoming monotonous; for this, he deserves strong praise.
Not only is Lone Survivor a suspenseful and visceral action film, it is a testament to the brave soldiers who serve around the world told through the tragic story of one mission. | Matthew Newlin