Correction appended: 11:30 p.m. E.T., Dec. 25, 2013
Lieut. Commander Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) has run his Navy SEAL Team 10 through the torture of training, which they somehow survive, and tells them, “You just proved to your bodies, through your mind, that you can push yourself further than you thought possible.”
Yes, very impressive, the physical endurance of young men dedicated to a military mission. But pushed them where? And to what purpose? Maybe from a patriotic impulse, but mainly, as Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) says, because these young men felt most alive when they were “pushing ourselves into those cold, dark corners where the bad things live, where the bad things fight. We wanted that fight at the highest volume.”
Writer-director Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, based on Luttrell’s best-selling nonfiction book, shows war at high volume and variable octane. It details Operation Red Wings, a March 2005 mission into Afghanistan to take out the Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. The film’s title, like those of 12 Years a Slave and Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (known in France as A Man Condemned to Death Escapes), reveals the climax of the story before it begins. Once the quartet of SEALs lands on a mountain overlooking the village the village that is Shahd’s operating base and the fierce skirmish begins, you know that only Marcus will survive. It’s his memoir.
This is a movie in three acts, with three competing agendas. It creates macho-men stereotypes to earn sympathy for men occupying a country most of whose inhabitants don’t want them. It then explodes the fantasy of an all-potent U.S. military through the muddle and screwups that can plague any large operation. Finally, it embraces another convention of war movies: civilians so grateful for the intervention of an American soldier that they give him refuge and the means of escape. You are welcome to accept any of these propositions, but it’s hard to buy all three.
At the start, the SEAL contingent is “a band of brothers” whose readiness for heroism is proved by undergoing the intense strength training that action-film stars do. Wonderful guys, and the vast majority of them white: no “Brooklyn,” a token Italian or Jew, as found in World War II movie regiments, no blacks bantering with whites as in Vietnam films like Platoon. Some strut their bravado — “I am the reaper,” shouts Axe Axelson (Ben Foster) — when not Skyping their loving wives back home. Both gestures, in war movies if not in real life, are sure indicators of imminent violent death.
(MORE: Corliss’s cover story on Oliver Stone’s Platoon)
The four men — Marcus, Axe, Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) — have a presentiment of this mission’s peril: “Lot of moving parts,” Murphy observes. On the hill, they quickly get Shahd, code-named Rick James, in their gunsights but don’t pull the triggers; this is to be only a reconnaissance op. When they capture an old man and two boys, who may or may not be Taliban fighters, the SEALs must choose one of three options: kill them, bind them as captives or let them go. Marcus argues against the first choice, imagining the world’s horrified response: “CNN, O.K.? ‘SEALs Kill Kids.’ That’s the f—in’ story, forever.” The one thing they can’t do is interrogate the trio; the team has been trained in everything but elementary Pashto.
Once their captives are let loose, and they scamper down to alert the Taliban, the real fighting begins. Smartly captured by cinematographer Tobias Schliessler and orchestrated by editor Colby Parker Jr. — both of whom worked for Berg on Friday Night Lights, Hancock and Battleship — the 31-minute sequence lends verismo and fatalism to the many things that can go wrong in the waging of war: frayed communications with the home base, the unavailability of air support, the refusal of the top brass to order a quick adjustment of the mission. All that, plus hundreds of Taliban attacking four trapped Americans, and not one of them Katniss Everdeen. It’s a vivid, you-are-there massacre.
(MORE: Mary Pols’ review of Peter Berg’s Battleship)
When the grievously wounded Marcus makes it down the hill and into the village, Lone Survivor devolves into a dewy idyll. Marcus removes one of the bullets he’s taken by performing DIY triage; and a winsome local boy and his dad help Marcus fulfill his mission. “F— the Taliban!” one villager shouts, in English, as if providing expert testimony in the court of skeptical world opinion: Yes, this is why we are in Afghanistan. That these events actually happened doesn’t necessarily make it plausible or powerful in a movie, or keep it from seeming like convenient propaganda.
The 49-year-old director and his main cast underwent rudimentary SEAL training, pushing themselves “further than you thought possible … into those cold, dark corners where the bad things live.” They carry some of that dedication into the film, particularly in the harrowing middle-act siege. You may salute Lone Survivor for its desperate intensity; but the film remains pinned down by its military and political dilemma: between gung ho and F—, no.
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the film editor. He is Colby Parker Jr., not Corey.