Critics of Lone Survivor describe the film as jingoistic, lacking substance, and needlessly heavy handed. They are wrong. It is precisely the extremely visceral depiction of an elite team of Navy SEALS in a firefight, juxtaposed with their playful ribbing only moments before, that ranks the film as the best war movie since The Hurt Locker.
Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) are dropped into the Pech district of Afghanistan’s Kunar province to carry out Operation Red Wings, a mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. When the integrity of the mission is compromised by a local group of goat herders stumbling into the team’s position, Michael Murphy must make the decision to either kill the civilians and proceed as planned or abort the mission. His choice leads his team into an escalating disaster.
Director Peter Berg holds nothing back. Every wound a SEAL receives is offered up intimately for the camera. While the actors communicate the pain, Berg resists dramatizing these wounds for emotional effect. When Dietz gets his fingers shot off, Berg does not linger on the injury but instead focuses our attention on the soldier’s redoubling of his efforts to neutralize the enemy. The SEALs take an unbelievable beating, each man shot multiple times yet continuing to function. When a SEAL receives a near-death wound, it hurts, and he bleeds, but it does not immediately kill him. Berg’s calm matter-of-factness about life or death circumstances somehow makes the severity of the violence bearable. This is not the incessant gore of a Quentin Tarantino film but a meaningful exposure to the daily lives of men who must endure the unthinkable to survive.
Unlike other war movies that almost invariably feature a soldier bleeding out and begging for mother and mercy, Berg dedicates his picture to simple honesty. From the outset of the film to when the credits roll, Berg hands the audience only the facts. The film’s lack of sensationalism does not make Lone Survivor stiff, but real. Berg grabs your attention immediately by starting off with a montage of SEAL training exercises followed closely by the musical initiation of their newest member. The SEALs are disciplined and intelligent, but also humorous and lighthearted.
Berg does not remake these soldiers into popcorn heroes, but rather paints them as human beings with hopes, dreams, and shortcomings. They are men who are capable of making grave mistakes in an effort to do the right thing. The audience comes to share the same adrenaline, the same fear, and the same courage the SEALS experience in these situations. We also come to realize that these men, stoic to be sure, draw most of their courage from their palpable respect for one another. At the same time, well-placed quips add some much needed levity to the film and invite us to join an emotional bond between the characters that is as much playful as profound.
Berg resists the temptation to label every Afghani as a demon; instead he gives us, for a war movie, a refreshingly fair depiction of “the enemy.” Although the Taliban epitomizes evil, other Afghanis are shown as civilians caught in the crossfire, villagers who desire not to fight a war but to live honorably. This rare impartiality not only lends credibility to the film, it also enhances our emotional investment in the complex moral questions this real life story portrays.
Lone Survivor explodes from the starting line at a blisteringly fast pace, keeping us racing through the action without ever losing us in its wake. The central firefight in the story lasts for a large portion of the film, but the film’s careful editing holds our attention and comprehension. The film uses notably fast cuts to recreate the feeling of frenzy in battle, but unlike, say, Saving Private Ryan, it does so without inducing vertigo. Berg does a particularly good job fashioning scenes of controlled chaos. Bullets whiz by and grenades go off, and all the while the soldiers remain poised enough to communicate effectively with each other, allowing audiences to follow the storyline (but only just). Lone Survivor is a visual roller coaster. The likability of the characters, coupled with standout performances by Wahlberg and Hirsch, makes this a thrill ride to the end.
Ryan Poladian is a senior in the Philosophy Department.