Lone Survivor (the survivor being SEAL Marcus Luttrell played by Mark Wahlberg) concentrates so much on the details of Operation Red Wing, a commando mission gone awry to eliminate a Taliban leader, that the politics never really surfaces. The films moral moment hinges on the choice of what to do with the three goat herders who strayed upon their position. Tied them up, kill them or release them? They opt for the last, hoping that “good things will happen to good people”. The rest is the combat that results.
The director Peter Berg registers every bullet, every fight and every punishment with an attention to detail that borders on the obsessive. “Lone Survivor” is based on Lutrell’s own nonfiction retelling of the events. And the film shares the book’s strength as well as weaknesses. The camaraderie of the soldiers; the combat experience registered in great stunt work, makeup, grunt cinematography and the spot on sound design registers every harrowing moment brilliantly. This being the soldier, experience everything exists in states of grey except for the enemy.
As for the enemy there are only the good and the bad. The Taliban are all black manner and heart and the noble villagers whose ancient code of honouring guests provides the white side of the cliché, the odd truth of the story that is revealed in actual end credit photos. The Afghan people are divided between those who hold fast to the true and honest traditions and the new that adhere to a warped and broken version of the same code. They exist to provide a solid reason for continued American involvement. Lone Survivor is the Green Berets of Afghan/Iraq war movies.
Sure, Berg’s directorial background contains war movie blood (The Kingdom, Battleship). The attention to combat detail and Berg’s refusal to make Lone Survivor neither an anti or pro war film robs Lone Survivor of its emotional ambivalence. The combat never quite treads the line between honoring individual bravery and glorifying wartime brutality. The prolonged battles grind down from excitement to numbness to exhaustion. And, the temptation to give everyone a noble warrior’s death is not resisted. Every one of the good cast (Eric Bana, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, and Taylor Kitsch) gets their big acting moment.
Lone Survivor accomplishes its mission. It honors its war movie past while still giving the procedural view. The SEALs get their due as does the story and the ordeal– all while displaying the moral choices at play in the field of action. Lone Survivor gets a B from me.