‘Lone Survivor’: SEALs at work in a frank, sometimes shocking war film
By RICHARD ROEPER Movie Columnist January 9, 2014 3:40PM
Taylor Kitsch (from left), Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch play the four U.S. Navy SEALs in Afghanistan sent to take out a Taliban leader in “Lone Survivor.” | UNIVERSAL PICTURES
‘LONE SURVIVOR’ ★★★
Marcus Luttrell Mark Wahlberg
Michael Murphy Taylor Kitsch
Danny Dietz Emile Hirsch
Matt “Axe” Axelson Ben Foster
Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Peter Berg, based on the book by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson. Running time: 121 minutes. Rated R (for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language). Opens Friday at local theaters.
Updated: February 11, 2014 6:03AM
They are Navy SEALs, but this mission is all about tree lines and rocky terrains, and finding refuge in a nature-made bunker as yet another storm of bullets rains down on them.
There are only four of them. They expected to fight and take out a similar number of Taliban. Instead, they found themselves under attack by a small army.
“Lone Survivor” is Peter Berg’s sometimes horrifically realistic re-creation of Operation Red Wings, a 2005 SEAL mission that went tragically wrong almost from the moment four American SEALs were dropped via helicopter onto a steep Afghanistan hillside covered with jagged rocks and thick tree lines.
Even if you’re not familiar with the outcome of the real-life mission, the title of this film doesn’t leave much room for ambiguity. Even before the mission, when the SEALs talk about loved ones back home, we know some of them aren’t ever going to make it home. (Cardinal movie rule: The more a sailor lingers over a snapshot of the love of his life and talks about his pregnant wife or his upcoming wedding, the more likely he’s a goner.)
After a quick-flash forward that further gives away the end of the movie, Berg takes us back four days, before the battle. Using the same kind of visual style and jangling-guitar soundtrack that punctuated his brilliant “Friday Night Lights” TV series, Berg delivers scenes of the SEALs at the Bagram Airfield: enduring the rigors of training, giving each other grief at meal time, going through initiation rituals, planning a covert mission. (The “Friday Night Lights” ties run deep for Berg. Most of the music is done by “Friday Night Lights” alums Explosions in the Sky, and “FNL” star Taylor Kitsch, who was also featured in Berg’s “Battleship,” is one of the four SEALs here.) It’s all very familiar war-movie stuff, establishing our main guys and setting the table for the action to come.
In addition to Mark Wahlberg’s Marcus Luttrell, there’s Mike Murphy (Kitsch), the special-ops team leader who’s such a legend other SEALs repeat his name with reverence, as if he’s a superhero; communications specialist “Axe” Axelson (the always intense and excellent Ben Foster); and Gunner’s Mate Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch, in another fine performance). Eric Bana plays their commander, Erik Kristensen, who oversees the mission from base camp and has to make some life-or-death decisions on the fly, sometimes with only a sliver of new information with which to work.
The goal of Operation Red Wings is to eliminate a key Taliban leader, Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami). The intel says Shah is in a remote village at the base of that rocky hillside and is vulnerable — but as Luttrell almost casually notes during the planning session, this is the kind of mission that “has a lot of moving parts,” and they won’t really know what they’re getting into until it’s too late to reconsider the plan.
As the SEALs move into position, they run into a goat herder and a young boy, presumably his grandson. They take the two captive, and there’s intense debate about what to do next. Axe says they’ve got to kill the old man and the boy because if they don’t, the two are going to run down to the village and give them away. Marcus takes a step back and says if they “terminate the complication,” as Axe has put it, they’ll be all over CNN and they’ll be known as kid-killers forever.
Soon after that debate is settled, the fighting begins — and for the next half hour-plus, Berg delivers one of the most shocking, gruesome and devastating depictions of war ever put on film. When the SEALs aren’t getting peppered with bullets from the seemingly endless rows of Taliban fighters, they’re tumbling down cliffs, their bones breaking as they bash into trees and rocks before landing with a cringe-inducing thud on solid rock. Even after Marcus finds refuge in an ancient Afghan village, there’s more violence coming.
The later scenes in that village are intriguing but frustrating. Berg makes the choice to wait until the credits to explain certain things — a payoff that might have worked better had we been given just a little bit more information while the action was in progress.
Working from Luttrell’s memoir, Berg isn’t interested in putting this particular mission into some kind of big-picture, “Zero Dark Thirty” perspective. “Lone Survivor” is primarily about the unflinching bravery of SEALs executing their mission and looking out for one another, even as they’re coming to grips with the reality of how this thing is going to end.