This review is written under the assumption you’re already familiar with the basic outline of the true story of former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and the events surrounding 2005’s Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan. If you don’t know the story, stop here. If you do, the film still has plenty of surprises which I won’t spoil.
After America was bloodied in Pearl Harbor, a Democrat president asked a film industry that was mostly run by Republican moguls who loathed him, to back his war effort. They did, and then some. As quickly as American factories were retooled for making war, so was Hollywood. For a country that had given them the opportunity to build An Empire of Their Own, partisan politics were set aside to help Roosevelt defeat a savage enemy.
After September 11, 2001, a Republican president asked a film industry almost completely controlled by Democrats, to back the war effort. They not only refused, instead they retooled their studios to build bombs for the enemy — one big box-office bomb after another was designed to undermine the war effort, demonize our troops, and ensure our enemies — a bunch of racist, sexist, homophobic, theocratic savages — that if they just hung in there, they could prevail against America Inc.
In 2007, director Peter Berg jumped into the War on Terror, with his thriller “The Kingdom.” It took him until the very end, the final scene, to cave to the fashionable moral relativism of the day … he blinked. He even admitted it. “American bloodlust” concerned him and a rouser ended on a bummer.
But you could still see Berg had it in him to understand the Big Picture: The sacrifice and nobility of the men who fight our wars, the almost incomprehensible savagery of our enemy, and what and who we are fighting for: our own safety, yes, but also the everyday people living in the Afghanistans and Iraqs who simply desire to peacefully live their lives and raise their children as much as any American.
With “Lone Survivor,” Berg holds firm. No bummer here, just a straightforward (and true) story of unforgettable sacrifice, heroism, brotherhood, humanity, and the primitive barbarians who attempt to kill or subjugate all that is good.
On an evening in June of 2005, four Navy SEALs, team leader Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), snipers Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster), and communications specialist Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), are “inserted” into the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan to identify and track Ahmad Shah, a terrorist responsible for murdering American Marines and any Afghan villagers helping or suspected of helping the Americans.
Things go sideways almost immediately when the Seal Team discovers hundreds of Taliban fighters in the village they’re surveilling as opposed to the couple of dozen expected. Things go completely to hell when the hidden Team is accidentally stumbled upon by goat herders. The surrounding mountains make a call for help impossible.
Berg takes his time getting us to this point, and you don’t mind. He wants to give you a tour of the SEAL subculture (including a training montage over the opening credits) and an opportunity to get to know the four men we will spend most of the movie with. This pipe-laying is absolutely necessary if we’re to be emotionally invested in the 70-minutes that follow — minutes so well-crafted and intense you have to remind yourself to breathe.
The deaths of Murphy, Axelson, and Dietz are heartbreaking. These were men; valiant, decent, noble, exceptional men. We pray for them to survive even when we know they won’t. And we cheer not for the brave way they die but for the brave way in which they struggle to the last to live. At one point Murphy (I believe) says something to the effect of, “I don’t want to die for my country, I want to live for my country.”
Eventually Luttrell is on his own and in a situation so hopeless you feel despair even as he refuses to give into it. Here he meets the man who will save his life, a Pashtun villager named Mohammad Gulab, who takes Luttrell to his village to give him shelter and first aid. With a brutal beheading, Ahmad Shah has already warned these villagers not to aid Americans. Still, they stand and fight for their “guest,” and pay a terrible price.
“Lone Survivor” is a remarkable story (based on the book written by Luttrell) and the kind of War on Terror movie a morally literate Hollywood would have been producing from the beginning.
THE TRUTH honors our fighting men and women, it honors the many Muslims on our side and fighting by our side, and it accurately depicts the Islamic Nazis who need to be wiped off the face of the earth.
The film’s theme touches on another truth: that decency is a vulnerability in the face of evil. Doing the right thing costs these four men everything. And it costs the Afghan villagers every bit as much. Berg isn’t arguing against the decency that makes us better than our enemies. He’s merely telling the truth that we are better than out enemies — a truth denied, hidden, and twisted by too many of our media and entertainment overlords.
For his part, Berg has directed his best film to date. Structurally, “Lone Survivor” could have easily turned out tedious, episodic, or like watching a video game. Instead, you are immediately emotionally invested in these men and rewarded with an experience with as much heart as action.The acting is superb, especially among the four. It is obvious that everyone went the necessary distance to honor these men and get it right.
Another improvement over “The Kingdom” is the shooting style. That godforsaken shaky-cam went a long way towards undermining every action scene in that 2007 film. The action in “Lone Survivor” is very well choreographed and shot. Spacially, you know where everyone is and visually, you can see everything just fine.
No small thing these days.
“Lone Survivor” is now available for HD Digital Download and arrives on Bluray June 3rd.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC