Lone Survivor

Mark Wahlberg stars in this gripping true-story depiction of modern warfare

Lone Survivor


Directed by Peter Berg. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana, Ali Suliman, Scott Elrod, Alexander Ludwig. Written by Berg, from the novel by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson.

A gripping adaptation of Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson’s Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10, Peter Berg’s film version of this true story is also an adrenaline-rush, take-no-prisoners account of modern warfare in the Black Hawk Down mold. This isn’t one for the uninitiated. 

While the title and a brief opening sequence tell us where this is going, it’s the execution that sets this film apart: Lone Survivor features a brutally realistic extended firefight that goes on for nearly an hour and lets us feel every blood-soaked, bone-crunching detail along the way. It’s visceral filmmaking at its finest, and the best work that director Berg (The Kingdom, Battleship) has produced. 

Operation Redwing was a joint military mission undertaken in rural Afghanistan that targeted Taliban leader Ahmed Shah, who headed an anti-coalition militia in the area. In the first phase of the operation, a four-man team of Navy SEALS would be dropped into the wilderness and hike to a small village to carry out recon and surveillance on Shah; after positively identifying him, they would be joined by forces flown in via Blackhawk and Apache helicopters. 

But the operation never made it past the first phase. The SEALS were accidentally stumbled upon by three goat herders, including a young boy, and forced to make a decision: let them go, in which case the Taliban would be almost immediately alerted to their position, tie them up and leave the area, which would give them time to escape but may result in death or injury to the herders, or eliminate them and carry on with the mission.

(As an aside, I’m not sure why a fourth option wasn’t considered – keep the herders with them until they were a safe distance from the village and then let them go – but maybe this is further detailed in the novel.)

In the film, the SEALS are played by Mark Wahlberg (as Luttrell), Taylor Kitsch (Lieutenant Michael Murphy), Emile Hirsch (Danny Dietz) and Ben Foster (Matthew Axelson). Eric Bana stars as their commanding officer back on base, who the SEALS have difficulty contacting. The primary characters are effectively portrayed, but this isn’t the kind of film that allows much room for the performances. 

Instead, what happens after the fateful decision is pure Hell-on-Earth warfare, as the SEALS find themselves ambushed by dozens (hundreds?) of Taliban warriors. Over the next hour, we feel every shot and every blow as the SEALS shoot and backtrack, get shot and take not one but two leaps of faith down rocky cliffs.

This is uncompromising stuff – and an incredibly effective portrait of the brutality of war, in the Saving Private Ryan/Black Hawk Down mold. Despite being familiar with the story, I wasn’t prepared for the unflinching portrayal of watching these men fight for their lives. We usually see the effects of war in films like these – of characters bloodied and beaten – but here we see every last gunshot and broken bone and wound along the way. When we look at the bloody faces and weary bodies towards the end, we know exactly how they got that way.

If only the film could have kept that intensity and manic energy until the very end; instead, a climactic rescue operation feels too conventional, and pales in comparison to what has come before it. 

Minor quibble: each of the four leads sports a similar beard and hairstyle; during some of the more frenetic shots amidst the carnage, it can be difficult to tell who’s who. 

Lone Survivor won’t be confused for being anything less than gung-ho patriotic, but the film eliminates some of the more controversial aspects of the novel, in which Luttrell lashed out at a liberal media and mindset. This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it’s a story that couldn’t have been told any other way; kudos to director Berg for his unflinching vision.

Also opening this week:

  • Lars Von Trier’s highly-anticipated Nymphomaniac: Vol. II (showtimes | IMDb) opens today, two weeks following the first installment. In the US over the holidays, I haven’t had a chance to catch either film, but check back next week for my take. 

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