Lone Survivor is not so much a war movie about American soldiers as it is an ode to the death of American soldiers. From its title alone you’d be able to deduce that men are going to die in this film, and they die in big numbers. The Afghans drop like flies. We don’t know their names. We don’t even see some of their faces. But each American death is glorified, slowed down almost to a standstill, slow enough for the bodies to hit the ground before the blood does. We are meant to remember how tragically they died, not how bravely they fought.
This is unfortunate, because the men in this movie fight very bravely indeed. They are victims of the terrain, much like they were back in the Vietnam War, where they realised that advanced weaponry and armoured vehicles were not enough to outsmart and outgun the locals. Both the Vietnam War and the operation in this film — Operation Red Wings — played host to guerrilla warfare, and it doesn’t take much to conclude that guerrilla warfare always favours the side that knows the land.
As the movie opens we are introduced to four Navy Seals stationed in Bagram: Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster). Some of the peripheral characters include Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) and the newbie Shane Patton (Alexander Ludwig). The strength of these early scenes lies in their objectivism. All the men we meet are treated with equal value. No one is more important than the other. Sure, we know that Wahlberg is the hero — his face is plastered on the poster — but up until the movie’s big shootout, we don’t know who the star is.
Operation Red Wings was a search and seizure mission to locate and capture Ahmad Shah, a known associate of the Taliban. His encampment was a small village nestled deep in the valley between two towering hills, surfaced by sheer cliffs and perilous lakes of sharp rocks. Phase one of the operation was to plant a surveillance team. In Lone Survivor, this team — made up of the four Seals — is designated to perch itself on one of the hills and keep a close eye on the village. This they do, until a herd of goats and their farmers happen to chance upon their scouting position.
They capture the farmers and suspect them of being Taliban spies. With time running out and executing them not being an option, they set them free.
This is their secondary mistake. Their primary mistake is underestimating the terrain. Director Peter Berg cleverly illustrates this in a scene that sees the fittest of the Afghan farmers leaping off cliffs and bouncing off jagged rocks like a cat on a trampoline as he races back to the village with news of his find, while the Americans trip and tumble their way up the hill to find a clearing for good satellite reception. Before long, the four men are surrounded by AK-47s and rocket launchers, and the movie’s lengthy gunfight begins.
The action is impressive in Lone Survivor. Peter Berg is sure-footed and films the chaos with meaning and a sensible course of action. One problem leads to another. We are never at odds with the decisions of the characters, always in tune. Berg also helmed the blockbusters The Kingdom, Hancock, and Battleship, all of which relied heavily on battle sequences or visual effects, or both. He has experience with warfare, whether it’s with soldiers, superheroes, or subterranean aliens, and he brings this confidence to Lone Survivor. The gunfight atop the hill is so tense and so precisely choreographed that it could stand as a short film, or a short documentary discussing the tactics of war.
If there’s anything to be disappointed about, it’s the ending, which gives itself over to Hollywood cliche and over-sentimentality. There’s a photo montage just before the end credits roll that plays like the newspaper obituaries. What are we meant to feel while watching this? Honour? Pride? Sadness? Maybe guilt? I just felt that it went on for too long. Much like the trauma of war.
Best Moment | Besides the big gunfight? The line, “That’s not a knife, it’s a fucking duck!”
Worst Moment | All the slow-motion segments.