‘I’ ON CULTURE
Lone Survivor is not only an excellent war film but a fine example of morality within the context of war. In some ways, it is reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, although on a much smaller scale. I have noted that other critics seem divided on the film, often based largely on whether they approve of our fighting in Afghanistan, rather than on the movie’s quality.
The story, based on the book of the same name by Marcus Luttrell, who is the title character, focuses on a mission of Navy SEALs to the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan. The four SEALs, Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), go into the mountains in 2005 with the goal of killing a Taliban leader, Ahmad Shah, who has plagued them. They know he is visiting a village and hope to ambush him. Unfortunately, they discover that he has far more soldiers than they had been told would be there — and that is only the first of the many blunders made on the mission, known as Operation Red Wings.
A central scene in the film is when some goatherds stumble on the soldiers. The herders are unarmed, do not work for the Taliban and one is a boy. If they kill them, they would bear the guilt. But if they let them go, the herders will undoubtedly let the Taliban know they are there. The scene is haunting; their decision in favor of mercy will come back to plague them.
As expected, the herders report them to the Taliban, who come after them in droves. After that, the movie is essentially a portrayal of their struggle to survive. They are stuck in place, surrounded on top of a mountain and reinforcements seem a world away. Their cooperation, their struggle for survival, while also demonstrating their underlying belief that they are the best fighters in the world and are invincible, provides a lot of the movie’s spark. They are, indeed, better fighters one on one than the people they are battling, and even more potent as a team. But the odds against them are far too high.
During the battle, the four outnumbered warriors behave as expected. Earlier, we have seen their training, how grueling and daunting it is, how they are accepted into their fraternity. Here the men behave like superheroes, but when hurt, they do bleed and they face real damage. The damage done is compounded when the reinforcement helicopter is shot down and eight more men die.
There are problems in the movie. The men are a bit too alike to have much character differentiation. Essentially, you’ve got four dirty, bearded men wearing the same uniform, all of them fighting to stay alive. In old-time war movies, the writers made certain to find ways to have a variety of “types” to let people identify more easily with the group. But Peter Berg’s script, following the facts, is not fictional; the soldiers involved were part of our warrior elite, and thus were more like each other than would normally be the case.
The agonizing over whether to kill the goatherds was one thing that really set the film apart. Would the Taliban have agonized for even a second to kill innocents? They have never worried about that in the past. But Americans are different. Even the toughest of our warriors find doing things like that repulsive. The SEALs quite possibly lost their lives because of that mercy. But they did it, knowingly and willingly.
This is an excellent movie, even if limited in scope. It does not cover big battles or an obviously important mission like going after Osama Bin Laden. It works on a small scale, but the battle scenes are tough and brilliant. Berg’s direction, like his script, is straightforward, with few digressions. It honors the men who took part in the mission, noting flaws, but using their thoughts and actions as their monument. It will probably not win many awards, but I preferred it to a lot of the fare brought out last month in hopes of winning.
See the film. It is tough, not a movie to really “enjoy.” But it is dramatic and extremely well done. The performances are good, and you will not be able to tear your eyes away from the screen.