There are a lot of movies that glorify being in the military. Getting the chance to fight for your country is probably the “bravest” and “manliest” thing you can do. This movie glorifies being in the military, but also asks that you respect it and acknowledge that not everyone is going to get the chance because not everyone is going to make it through even the training itself. Not only does the movie ask you to respect the military, but it instills an excruciating sense of fear and depression in you.
Just the title “Lone Survivor” is, essentially, telling you everything you need to know concerning what’s about to transpire within the next two hours. At first, you get a brutal montage of real military personnel trying out for the SEALs and getting a sense of just how many of them fail to do so. It lets you know that these men are hardened and trained to experience the worst of the worst. That’s exactly what SO2 Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), SO2 Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and SO2 Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) as led by LT Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) are about to go through.
Considering that the movie is based on the book written by the real Marcus Luttrell, I think you know where this is headed. The film tells the true tale of “Operation Red Wings,” a mission which tasked SEAL Team 10 to take down a prominent ally of the Taliban named Ahmad Shah. The movie establishes that these men are just like you and me. They all go through the same rigors we do, whether it’s trying to decide which wall color your wife is going to like for the house or not knowing what horse to get as a gift for your wife-to-be. It brings humor in a movie that desperately needs it because the second half is full of incredible bleakness. I think it’s safe to say that no one expects war to be anything but merciless. However, most movies mistakenly like to exaggerate what goes on in order to make war seem a bit more grandiose. Maybe a bit more bombastic. I say mistakenly because actual war in itself is already like witnessing a horror movie. And if there’s anything that “Lone Survivor” does really well, it’s giving you that sense of dread that comes with the fact that your job is to dodge death while becoming the grim reaper yourself.
The story then brings up questions of morality. After some goat-herders from the village where Ahmad Shah is residing compromise the troop’s position, the men are left with the question of what to do with their captives. “The way I see it, we have three options…” says LT Murphy. They could either kill them quietly and drop them off the steep cliffs surrounding them, kill them quietly and bury them right then and there before hightailing it, or let them loose and high tail it to safety. Now, I know what you might be thinking, and, no, the decision isn’t exactly so cut and dry. See, the three captives were an old man, a teenager (seemingly), and a young boy. These were people that were unarmed and posed no real threat to these hardened men other than giving away their position. Which is a big a deal, sure, but the ramifications of killing them are too big to ignore. Given that they are unarmed, this would be tried as murder. Dumping the bodies or burying them could end up covering for that, but if the Taliban were to discover the bodies and bring this to the attention of the public, the news outlets would be condemning the entire SEALs for murdering children. So, it bodes the question. What’s the right thing to do here? And after all is said and done, was letting three people live worth the losses that occurred thereafter?
The movie pulls no punches. It’s graphic and unrelenting. Watching the men in action trying to survive is almost punishment given how jarring everything looks and feels. I don’t mean that in a bad way, either. It feels intense and keeps you interested in the fate of these men. That is, despite the knowledge that only one of them is going to make it. It’s not a hindrance knowing how this is going to end because Peter Berg does a great job of roping you in and still hoping that maybe, just maybe these guys will make it. The story execution is enough to rope you in and the beautiful visuals give you a sense of wonder before using sound to enhance the moments where you realize that it is all unforgiving terrain. You’ll want to look away, but you just can’t.
It’s not the say the movie is without its flaws. Yes, we can relate to the characters in certain aspects, but we don’t really get the full picture of these guys. You feel sad that this is happening and root for them to make it, but it’s mostly because we as a nation know what this all means. We’re not rooting for them because we have an attachment to them, but because they are facing our biggest enemy in decades. The acting is fine, but these are just regular guys that happen to be really resilient and brave. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. And then there’s certain tropes that we see in every military movie, like the american soldier that is just too hard to take down, but the enemies go down in one shot. To be fair, it feels believable, but thinking about it extensively might make you question it. Not to mention the shaky-cam action sequences that are made even harder to distinguish when three of the four soldiers have brown hair and full beards.
Despite all this, “Lone Survivor” is a solid movie and if the 2013 landscape for movies wasn’t so crowded, it might actually be getting some serious awards attention. I was very surprised by the outcome and recommend it to anyone that is okay with leaving a theater depressed, but appreciative of the journey.
“Lone Survivor” will be in theaters everywhere on January 10, 2014.