Lone Survivor: Why Are We in Afghanistan?

Mark Wahlberg stars in Peter Berg's fact-based action film — a military tragedy with a happy ending

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Universal Pictures

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.

(MORE: Peter Berg on filming Lone Survivor)

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.

35 comments
thomas.j.yoke
thomas.j.yoke

This review is a perfect example of why I despise the liberal MSM.  If you don't understand that reaction after reading this review, you will never understand.

Mackrulez1
Mackrulez1

This is disgusting and disrespectful. This movie was not made for any agenda other than to tell Marcus's story, you inserting your own hate toward the service people of this country is awful. Shame on you sir.

pyrochyde
pyrochyde

Richard you need to put your extreme liberal agenda behind and accept that this was a story of unrivaled heroism. Not because Americans were killing Taliban, but because what limits a person can push them self to, and what men are willing to sacrifice for each other. Smoke another joint, and re-watch the film with an open mind.

32bobg
32bobg

Richard, this is what happens when political bias distracts from reviewing a film. This review is a train wreck. .

FutureMan
FutureMan

Is this the same Mr. Corliss who named Black Hawk Down as one of the best films of 2001?

Chameleojack
Chameleojack

So one of the problems, as indicated in the review, is that not enough of the soldiers shown in the movie were poor black boys exploited by the military?

JollyRoger
JollyRoger

Duty, honor, sacrifice... of course these are things as alien to the liberal elite like this critic as breathing water, so naturally he thinks it implausible. They cannot stand true heroes like these SEALs and the rest of the military because they are the antithesis of their cowardly and weak existence. 

jnsesq
jnsesq

Richard, were you disappointed there was no My Lai here? Be honest...

briebo1
briebo1

That these events actually happened doesn't make it plausible - seriously?  I don't believe this film at all fails because it didn't go for "hung ho" or "f no."  One of its strengths is that it didn't make any, or try to make any, political statements.  Just because a film covers a real mission of a real and ongoing war doesn't mean it should have to make a political statement.  Yes, the idea that the Afghans who abhor the Taliban saved an American soldier does seem like a made for Hollywood ending, it doesn't seem plausible, but it happened!  I am definitely a "F no" kind of person when it comes to the war in Afghanistan, but that doesn't mean that I don't appreciate what our soldiers do, and it doesn't mean that I need movies to contemplate the politics around the situation.  This was a movie about survival, a movie about the brotherhood of soldiers, an intense ride in putting the audience through the harrowing experience of the soldiers.  And yes it does combine the elements of military incompetence of the "greatest military in the world", it does focus on making the soldiers look heroic badasses (which they were), and it does show that there are some in Afghanistan that would choose an American over siding with the Taliban.  The idea that it is hard to "accept" or buy into all three of these themes in a movie?  This is what happened, no politics, just storytelling.  Which as far as I know the purpose of films is to tell a story, not to make political points, and a movie doesn't fail because it failed to make a point it obviously was not trying to make.

terrible
terrible

Omg, what was with the  product placements,   lol, So another well up the score dragging the fool audience into blindness taking liberty with truth action packed with falsehoods to make it better movie. All while a clear depiction of the same lame poor planning and idiot on the ground decisions that seem to characterize blown missions.

Raytheon took a hit while helly hanson,  gatorade  and several others are paying for the big screen time no? whats up with that.?. POLITICS must be a new comm sale in the works at the pentagon..oh well.


  So are there goat herders in afghanistan team america?, well fu$%k yeah.. Uh duh but no contingency.. just open display of consternation at the rule of no killing civilians in cold blood, dayum what?  why?? awe


And would it have served to send the comm guy up alone?  or with 1 other while guarding the herders get the comm then go back down let them go when cavalry was well on the way?. and more lame efforts to depict survival after being shot 35 times each and rolled down a 38 degree incline 2 or 3x.. ahh dreamy magical hollywood ...for gods sake pleasse.. it does this for some quid pro quo I am here to tell you and the main product placement was...  military industries inc.   quid pro quo and you can quote me on that. the terrible guy, who has served by the way who holds valuable these lost lives, these heros no doubt. It just stands to reason we are being sold crap in movies like this one. STOP drinking the Kool aid!

jelloboy
jelloboy

Wow, the liberal cun-bag from Time doesn't like a story where the military isn't demonized. Shocking indeed. 

NanytHguanavak
NanytHguanavak

Please explain how something that actually happened isn't plausible. My head is spinning.

TedSloth
TedSloth

It is startling how many critics try to defend their opinion by saying, "just because that's the way it really happened doesn't mean the film should tell it that way". However a year a go they were saying that the opposite was true regarding Zero Dark Thirty. If you don't like our nations military or it's policies so be it but don't put that on a film that is a very faithful retelling of a true story doesn't mean fits the neat constructs of liberal Hollywood. Many of the reviews I have read seem a more than a bit flip about what it means to be a SEAL. If they bothered to review what these men go through after BUDS in terms of training they might have a little more respect who choose to this out of Ivy League schools, Olympic level athletes, and of course from more modest circumstances. Mr. Corliss seems to believe that a soldier of this level of training could not perform the self aid depicted. SEALs all go through intensive paramedic like training. I know trauma surgeons who work with them on the national combat casualty care committee and that the master chief level SEAL medics are some of the best and most experienced people in the world at dealing with the kinematics of trauma. Regarding the diversity in the film, the fact of the story was that there were no persons of color or Hispanics on the team and there are no female SEALS. What Mr. Corliss seems to forget is that these men died for the country that gives Mr. Corliss is free to question the inclusiveness or lack thereof he saw on the screen. I think the most glaring morphological issue is that Marcus Lutrell is around 6'6" and I believe Mark Walberg is less than 5"10". I suggest Mr. Corliss read a sampling of similar books that are available. Chris Kyle and Brandon Webb make it pretty clear that these are very dedicated, patriotic men who are willing to die to defend us. And because they are very suited to their work, they do have fun and have the guts to admit they like their jobs.

Mr. Corliss would serve his readers more effectively by securing employment as a Barista or Organic Mixologist. I think the view from behind those counters would give him a view of the world he is more comfortable with.

daric.wade
daric.wade

So, the author here suggests that the SEALs should've interrogated the goatherds. Exactly what intelligence does the author hope would've been derived from interrogation? 


"Please, please don't go down and tell the Taliban where we are or we'll be really really mad at you!"


This is what happens when people have never seen a warzone except on a map start breaking down military operations.


I'm also unsurprised that the Pashtun code of ethics (Pashtunwali) sailed right over his head.

StephenMichaelStirling
StephenMichaelStirling

Dude, how can something be "not plausible" if, as you admit, it actually happened?  


Why are you instinctively sympathetic to the Taliban, the guys who throw acid in little girls' faces and bury gay people alive?


You might want to think about that.

MarcusStone
MarcusStone

Why did the US Military send only 4 SEALS into enemy territory with inferior communications and no chance of a timely rescue if needed, especially when the guy they were going to recon could have been hit with a drone easily? Incompetence at its worst.  Then we send in choppers into a live firefight filled with more SEALS who get killed.  Didn't we learn anything in Viet Nam? We have no business over there our mission was to get Bin Laden, which could have been done easily and much sooner if we were not sidetracked on false allegations of WMD's in Iraq which is now involved in a never ending battle of sectarian warfare that will not see the end of day in our or our grandchildren's lifetime.  It is time to remove all military personnel from over there, cut our military budget in half and start rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure here in the US creating jobs. Sorry that I digressed.




PhillyCannabis
PhillyCannabis

American drones kill women children  and babies daily. How can americans turn our head from what the US military is doing?

joshuahusker
joshuahusker

The SEALs did NOT " ...capture an old man and two boys."  They were "walked on" or discovered during their Recon mission.  Sometimes I do wonder if you ever seen the movie you critique.   

seaaalex
seaaalex

@JollyRoger 

"Duty, honor, sacrifice... of course these are things as alien to the liberal elite


You can also say that of the conservative elite. Didn't see too many of those either while I was in the service .


Granted I'm also not overly impressed by the tone of this movie review either ...




terrible
terrible

@jelloboy it was just not good truth, which would be truth period. not comic book b.s. its time to go see something that will challenge 

intellect I dare say it might be humiliating

but suck it up frogman wanna be

timlhowe
timlhowe

@jelloboy I am a liberal.  Actually, Im a Clinton Dem in DC, a moderate in todays world.  A  Democrat who greatly respects the sacrifice of the military and  has worked with many great men who fought and were wounded in wars who are also committed Democrats.  I despise when people pretend that Democrats arent patriots too - but this reviewer is surely no patriot and id bet my life - not a Democrat either (Though Id bet the same thing that hes a Obamacrat - which is not even close to the same thing)


The review I just read of a movie I just watched makes me want to go to TIME's office in NYC and punch this reviewer right in the nose.  Ive never read a more obnoxious or less informed review ever.  My God, he condemns the movie for being implausible at the same time he acknowledges that the storyline is 100% true.  Huh? 


It could have been an interesting piece if he had written about that divide between what happened and what we expect from historical movies but he seemed to reject the historical truth of what Berg put on film.


And yes, Id agree that he did this because of his personal politics more than anything.  


Its depressing and Im ashamed for him because I know thats an emotion hed never feel himself.  


Tell you this, Ill remember this review when I hear that TIME shuts down its publication for good and be glad that this disgraceful worm is out of a job. 



terrible
terrible

@NanytHguanavak ok ask jessica lynch or pat tilmans family. truth dude. the story was not plausible

it's only a movie pushing the envelope of reality while many tear up inside and eat the sappy b.s melded right in,, mmmm  tasty puddin ?

daric.wade
daric.wade

@MarcusStoneWhy only 4? Because you can't hide a hundred people on a mountainside.


Stick to what you know.

StephenMichaelStirling
StephenMichaelStirling

@MarcusStone Dude, it was a recon mission.  They weren't there to fight.


And you apparently don't know how war works.  The plain fact is that screwups happen.  They don't happen as often these days -- up to 15% of our casualties in WWII were friendly-fire, for example.  But they still do.


And bin Laden did not work alone.  There are a lot of people who want to do us existential harm.  Since it takes two to make peace but only one to make war, we're at war with this crowd whether we like it or not.  The only question left is who wins:  there is no box marked "other".



Realworldnonfantasyland
Realworldnonfantasyland

@MarcusStone Ya we learned from Vietnam.... 47,424 American Casulties............

Afghanhastan 1,742..   

joshuahusker
joshuahusker

That is how they work.  There have been multiple upon multiple upon multiple missions like this that the SEALs, Rangers, GreenBberets have done with nothing like this happening.  They are/were a Recon team whose job was to Recon and look for this "Ahmad Shah". 

You need to first find the guy before you hit him with a drone and that is what they were doing.  I don't believe drone hits were a big option back then.  This event happened in 2005. 

I'll let you continue your "digression". 

TheoryAndFacts
TheoryAndFacts

@PhillyCannabis Oh the ultimate wisdom from a pot head from Philly.  

Realworldnonfantasyland
Realworldnonfantasyland

@PhillyCannabis In Afghanistan, people now live 20 years longer on average than under Taliban rule, they say; 7 million more children attend school and women are 80 percent less likely to die in childbirth.................How can you turn your head to what the US Military is doing

Realworldnonfantasyland
Realworldnonfantasyland

@PhillyCannabis  Because they are the most efficient military in the history of the world.  We get the job done and are the most professional about doing it in the history of the world.  I know that you like to focus on the sensational media headlines, but then again War sucks, but then again when you have a bunch of crap around, you have to occasionally flush it down the toilet. 

People like you would've been part of the 90% who kept their heads in the sand when Germany was starting all the garbage back then.  Guess what the keeping our heads in the sand did back then?  Cause an even bigger conflict then it probably should have.  Been you hippies celebrate FDR as a hero because he saved the day(even though it needed to be done before all of Europe was taken over) 

PaulWilliams1
PaulWilliams1

@joshuahusker Want to know what goes on in places like Iraq and Afghanistan?  Go talk to a recruiter.  You will never know the truth (even about combat deaths of famous soldiers like Pat Tillman) unless you were there to see it.  The ones who live get to write the history books.

jelloboy
jelloboy

@timlhowe  Hey, not all liberals are created the same - also I did say liberal and not Democrat on purpose. However my comment was soley about this reviewer, I've meet plenty of leftist  that don't hate the military, but it's pretty clear this guy does.

briebo1
briebo1

@timlhowe Thank you!  I don't even know how this reviewer has their job.  You can't accuse a movie of being implausible - especially as to citing actual events that took place - when those events happened!  I could understand the reviewer using implausibility in that the falls the guys took were to sever to think a real person could be alive after them or some such criticism - Hollywood does take things to the limits of believability sometimes - but to say it isn't plausible that the soldier was saved by those in an Afghan village who hate the Taliban.  That happened! This might be one of the worst movie reviews I have ever seen.  And to criticize it for not making a coherent political point?  I am a liberal, I loved this movie, and I also don't need everything I ingest in entertainment to be political, and I appreciated that this movie was straight storytelling without getting away from the story into political territory.  This movie obviously tried not make any political statements - to criticize it for not making those statements is just utterly infuriating. Shame on Time for even publishing this garbage.

joshuahusker
joshuahusker

I already talked to a Recruiter.  20 years USAF with two tours to South Korea and mutliple tours to the Middle East.  I am a Veteran, but not a combat Veteran.