Directed by: Peter Berg, who also wrote the scenario, “based”evidently on the book of the same name (sorta) written by the SEAL who survived this action, Marcus Luttrell (he had a ghost… actually, twenty-some ghosts if you count his buddies lost in the fight and whose memory hangs over the thing like the fuzzy photos that serve as epilogue, the which bring us to an old question about fidelity to horror and the means by which to retrieve lived experience. Basil Liddel Hart—variously pronounced—for instance thought that “immediate experience” of combat had the effect of “fossilizing” perception, rendering it unreliable. The novelist Céline fancied that you have to “distort” reality to capture it for an audience of outsiders, offering the image of a stick thrust into water and bent by refraction; if you bend the stick first, the medium rights it. Yeah, well… ultimately, you have to ask if this is what happened in Lone Survivor though we’re assured that Luttrell himself oversaw the making of the flick. What are we spared in this version? What is Luttrell spared? Not a question of duplicity but of the effects of trauma even on the bravest of men). Starring (if you can tell the difference among the figurants on account of they all have scruffy beards and all wear the same panoply and for combat no rank): Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Christian Bale, Taylor Kitsch (candidate for a Hollywood name-switsch), Ben Foster… annnnnnnd guess who Yousuf Azami plays?
Well, it’s a lousy movie even as war flicks go. Sorry. But I’m on record elsewhere as affirming that even a lousy movie about SEALs is worth the watch since the life and service of these guys remains a mystery (as does their motivation) to most (ptui!) civilians. Oddly, some of the corniest stuff seems to me (25-year Special Forces operator and veteran of close-quarters mountainside scraps not unlike the one here depicted) the most faithful. These ain’t not warrior-poets, alas: just tough guys sent by boneheads into a doomed fight, stuck with a collapsing situation from which there appears no exit yet refusing to acknowledge that fact (what good would it do?) or to consider capitulation (those ginks don’t take prisoners, anyhow). Sooooo… whaddaya do? You back up against your buddy’s back, stack your magazines, say good-bye to Mom and Suzie back home, and do what you’re paid to do, what Aaron sent that scapegoat out into the desert to do.
Technology has let film directors come up with horrific effects to produce the pink haze and splatter and thunk of gunshot wounds and shrapnel tears or at least convey the trauma of (remember that bent stick), so plan on seeing a batch of that stuff, maybe just a whisker bent too far with the result that even as it pass through the water for re-refraction, it still appears, well… bent. I’m particularly leery about long, slo-mo sequences of these guys tumbling down the thorn-strewn, crag-studded face of Mount Kpnsslarfl, in rag-doll mode, slamming into every sharp beetle, outcrop, jag, tor, and abutment on the way to the scree-ey bottom. Mighta gone a ridge too far with that bit… urf! urf! I cede that these guys are tough, but… for one thing, the any one of the AK butt strokes Mark Wahlberg takes later in the Afghan village woulda done for an elephant.
Well, the plot is simple enough. Headquarters in its dubious wisdom sends four guys, a SEAL cell (Marcus Luttrell, Matthew Axelson, Danny Dietz, Mike Murphy… you should know their names. Do you know Gary Gordon and Randy Shugart? Does anybody?), out into the brush to snag a renegade, Shah (Yousuf Azami). In flashbacks we get the by-now-old-hat treat to SEAL training in the sand and surf and—yerk! yerk!—good-natured SEAL foolishness in the team house (they watch Anchorman, toss beer cans, harass newbies, scarf down steaks, try to outdo one another at PT, fret about bridesmaids, you know… guy stuff). Now they’re cammying up, buckling on harnesses, loading magazines, clearing M-4 carbines larded with flashlights, grips, lasers, optics, iPods, earphones, and latex marital aids, then stumbling out onto the launch pad and into choppers. Trouble starts right off, though, when it looks as if Army pukes (ptui!) have snaked support aircraft, notably the attack ships with their lethal fire somehow. Bad omen. Worse yet, once on the ground, we find that all the sophisticated commo gear, satcom, GPS and the rest of the battery-operated doodah we are unwise to trust because it might fail us… has failed us. We can’t make radio contact to report alterations in the ground circumstances (namely that there are a gazillion ginks in the target compound and that four guys—even tough guys—won’t be enough for the mission). Recourse to an unsecure cellphone won’t work except teasingly with intermittence (mine, too, by the bye).
Worser yet a passel (term of art) of goatherds blunders into the not-too-secure perimeter of dozing SEALs (might bring that up in after-action report… oh… oh… there won’t be one? Well, okay…). Now what? This is the part of the flick I do not care for. Your moral posture with regard to unarmed civilians you establish way before the moment… before you enlist in the American armed forces, in my prejudiced view. Berg treats us here to an actual debate among the operators. Should we snuff these guys and drive on with the mission, the death of three (possibly) innocent goat-drivers no impediment to the mission? Or do we call in compromised and exfil, mission a failure (SEAL culture doesn’t abide failure gladly)? Both alternatives equally noxious… but only one Right? It irks me that the director stages a discussion of it. I can only hope the intent was to communicate the difficulty of operating among civilians (likely sympathetic to the locals because they’re local and not because they’re Taliban) and the regrettable cancellation of an operation because of non-combatant intrusion and not because men of my Nation seriously consider killing the unarmed.
Well, God bless ‘em, the SEALs make the right decision, viscerally, not tactically. Turn the goat-guys loose and beat it. Now the commo situation turns serious. We’ll have to climb to higher ground, wait till dawn for exfiltration. Ouch. Sure enough, the goatherds drop dime (drop fsnrkwad, actually, a small-denomination Afghan coin, since they don’t use dimes in The ‘Stan) on our gringos and 3842 AK-toting beturbaned ginks besilhouette the ridgeline to stand between the SEAL cell and home. Comes now the fight, the camaraderie, the slow erosion of the SEAL position, the wounding (…and wounding and wounding) of our guys till there’s only, hey… a lone survivor, Luttrell. Skittering among the boulders, he manages to dodge pursuit, only to be cornered by other Afghans (goats, turbans, gibberish is how you know). Are they foes? Allies? Indifferent? Will they turn him over? Wha…?
Well, I shan’t ruin it for you, though the title and surrounding press coverage have pretty much leached suspense out of this flick. No suspense? Then what’s the message here? Courage, devotion, fidelity. Yeah, yeah. We knew that already… if few enough of us are prepared to live by these virtues. The darker lesson seems to hinge on operational dumbness (staff pukes, in the term of art) that sent four guys out against an unknown and evidently superior adversary in terrain known to be hostile to communication (the only thing four guys in enemy territory would have going for them), with inadequate support, then chased them into a hot landing zone with an unarmed, unarmored aircraft unsupported by protective fire. Darker hint still that was Army staff pukes (only thing worser than Navy staff pukes) responsible for that. Ouch. I love Mark Wahlberg. Love SEALs. Enjoy the discomfiture of T(wo)hird(s) World ginks. Howsomever… wait for video. And rent, don’t buy.