Film: Lone Survivor

by Adam Michael Wright

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The soldiers talk about their wives at home, they play pranks on each other, they receive their orders, and then bullets whiz for an hour — that’s the simple way of describing the action movie “Lone Survivor.” Based on the true events of Operation Red Wings where, altogether, 19 American military men (11 SEALs and 8 soldiers) died in Afghanistan while trying to gain intelligence on Taliban leaders, “Lone Survivor” stars Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana, Ben Foster, and Taylor Kitsch. Peter Berg, director of “Friday Night Lights,” “Hancock,” and “Battleship,” sought to turn “Lone Survivor” into a film after he read Marcus Luttrell’s personal account detailing the events of Operation Red Wings. Luttrell, played by Wahlberg, was the only man to live through the bloody 2005 skirmish.

Far less patriotic then, say, “Captain Phillips,” it’s surprising to find a number of critics faulting “Lone Survivor ” for exhibiting a rah-rah attitude for all things American. While it is true the movie does not attempt any contemplation or second-guessing of US foreign policy, the film also does little to endorse it too, save for the token heroic music and real life photos of the 19 fallen SEALs and soldiers at the end.

Truthfully, “Lone Survivor” would have been more interesting had it allowed itself to at least entertain asking what–if anything–is worth dying for. The question should be asked because, under nightfall, the SEALs parachute into Taliban territory, not the other way around. The matter of just whose interests are being fought for never gets addressed. Neither the SEALs nor the film seem to care. Just because a politician, a superior officer, or a brother in battle says you are fighting for your country does not mean you really are. Omitted is the bigger picture, whether these men’s deaths were necessary.

Still, that does not dismiss the tensions and horrors the audience experiences alongside the SEALs in “Lone Survivor.” So the film is neither military propaganda or political critique. Nor is it empathetic or even interested in the Taliban’s own affairs. Mostly, Berg’s script only concerns itself with firefights, torn flesh, and fleeing from firefights. In this sense, the movie shares a number of similarities with both 2013’s “Gravity” and “All is Lost,” except there are no images of crashing waves or outer space.

Marcus Luttell not only served as a consultant on the movie but he even lived with Peter Berg for a month in order to lend Berg more personalized, more authentic info on SEAL life and the events of Operation Red Wings. Despite these efforts, Luttell (Wahlberg), Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny Dietz (Hirsch), Petty Officer 2nd Class Matt Axelson (Foster), and Lieutenant Mike Murphy (Kitsch) have the same uniforms, same guns, and the same things to say but with different beards on their manly faces. Indeed, the easiest way to distinguish the individuality of each SEAL team member is to identify him by the different wounds he incurs. Viewers grimace at the violence and carnage but they do not ache for the families at home or the life each man is about to lose. Initially, these four men–Luttell, Dietz, Axelson, and Murphy–are the only military people dropped into the Pech District of the Kunar Province. When they radio for help, reinforcements come in the form of two helicopters carrying another 16 soldiers.

What really happened to Petty Officer 2nd Class Marcus Luttell is the stuff from which movies are made. Suffering from countless lesions, multiple fractures, a broken back, and a gunshot wound, the Pashtun villagers took in Luttell and they even contacted American authorities and arranged his rescue. A 2000 year old Afghan tradition, requiring safe harbor from one’s enemies, compelled the villagers to do so. But “Lone Survivor’s” best scene comes before any of the rampage and destruction.

Not long after Luttell, Dietz, Axelson, and Murphy find their way to a mountain called Sawtalo Sar, looking through their rifle scopes the men conduct reconnaissance of the Taliban hideout in the valley below them. But then three local goatherders cross their path. For Luttell, Dietz, Axelson, and Murphy, their mission is compromised and, since the goatherders can reveal their location to Taliban members, the SEALs must decide to either kill the three Afghans (two of which are children) or to abort the mission, run to the top of the mountains where they can reestablish communications, and call for help. Quickly, discord breaks out amongst the SEALs. Axelson sees the goatherders as a minor inconvenience and, thus, very expendable. Luttell wants to set the Afghans free. In retrospect, it’s easy to criticize the SEALs for the decision they made but, ultimately, they just follow Lieutenant Murphy’s orders. He’s the only superior in the situation. And never questioning or condemning their superiors is what lead to the SEALs’ eminent condemnation.

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