Four Navy SEALs on a covert mission encounter goat herders who are likely connected to the Taliban. If they let them go, they can expect hundreds of enemies swarming them within hours. If they kill them, they violate the Geneva Convention. What should they do?
In homage to the men that were killed, Lone Survivor closely mirrors the true story of Operation Red Wings, a tragic 2005 mission gone wrong in Afghanistan. But director Peter Berg did splice in some Hollywood drama.
TIME fact-checks Lone Survivor, which opened nationwide Jan. 10, against an eyewitness account (also titled Lone Survivor) written by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg in the film). WARNING: spoilers abound, though the title does give away a key plot point in the film.
Operation Red Wings was just like any other mission
The movie gave the impression that Operation Red Wings is relatively routine and just has “a lot of moving parts.” But according to Luttrell’s book, Operation Red Wings was given the go-ahead and then canceled several times as their target moved among villages. The SEALs also worried about the terrain — a steep and jagged mountain with no trees to offer cover. And the men were clearly apprehensive before they went on the mission: SEALs usually take eight magazines of bullets with them on missions; all four men took eleven.
Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) made the ultimate decision to let the herders go
In both the book and film, the four SEALs — Marcus Luttrell, Michael Murphy, Danny Deitz and Matt Axelson — hashed out the pros and cons of killing the men: 100 goats would attract attention to the herdsmen (whether they were tied up or dead); the Taliban would capitalize on the herdsmen’s deaths, and CNN would run a story on SEALs slaughtering innocent men; allowing the heders to escape was signing a death warrant.
In the movie, after much discussion about what to do with the herders, Mike Murphy made the final decision about what to do. In reality, they voted. Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) was in favor of killing the men. Murphy wanted to let them go. Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) abstained from voting. The final vote then was left to Luttrell who voted to let them go. Though Luttrell is in favor of letting them go in the movie, the weight of the final decision does not fall on him as it does in the book.
In his book, Luttrell said of his decision, “It was the stupidest, most southern-fried, lamebrained decision I ever made in my life. I must have been out of my mind. I had actually cast a vote which I knew could sign our death warrant. I’d turned into a f – - king liberal, a half-assed, no-logic nitwit, all heart, no brain, and the judgment of a jackrabbit.”
All but Luttrell were killed in a gruesome fight on the mountain
Most of the details of the fight on the mountain are drawn straight from the book. They were forced to jump down the cliffs and were shot and injured in the process. Luttrell’s rifle did land miraculously two feet down from him. Murphy did sacrifice his life to radio reinforcements. Axelson was shot in the head. Some parts the movie doesn’t include: Luttrell shattered three of his vertebrae during his fall and broke his nose during another; Dietz died of a bullet wound to the head not on the upper ledge but while Luttrell was carrying him on his shoulder. He died in Luttrell’s arms.
Two helicopters came to save Luttrell, but one is struck by a rocket launcher
Eight SEALs and eight Army Night stalkers were killed when a rocket hit the helicopter attempting to rescue Luttrell.
Luttrell was rescued by a villager
Lutrell limped to a pool of water, wounded and with shrapnel in his leg. He licked the sweat off his body to survive. A man named Mohammed Gulab found him, took him back to his village and gave him food and shelter. The village protected him because of an ancient moral code to which they ascribe that dictates you must not only shelter and feed a wounded loner but also protect him against his enemies. Gulab, a doctor, even pulled the shrapnel out of his leg. (Luttrell didn’t pull the shrapnel out himself. The duck/knife confusion during that scene was just added to the script for a bit of light humor.)
The village defended Luttrell from the Taliban
Ruling: Mostly Fact
The movie dramatizes Luttrell’s run-in with the Taliban somewhat. They did discover him in the village, beat him, and interrogate him. But they were not about to cut off his head. The Taliban left when one of the elders in the village told them they could not take Luttrell, not when the villagers surrounded them with guns. (Though several times, the villagers did ward off the Taliban with AK-47s.) They shuttled Luttrell from house to house and even into a cave to hide him from the Taliban after that incident. Luttrell was eventually saved by a rescue group after they received his note.
One more fun fact: Anchorman was referenced twice in the film. According to director Peter Berg, it was the last movie the group of SEALs watched before the mission. When Berg shared that information with Will Ferrell, he signed a poster of Ron Burgundy for the film, which you can see in the opening shots.