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“Lone Survivor” is a riveting, sometimes hard to watch, based-on-a-true-story film that takes some of the best elements of films like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Zero Dark Thirty” and makes them its own. Basically, if you mixed up the order of “Ryan” and did the meet-and-greet of the main characters first, then the battle at the beginning in the middle, with the showdown between one man and a small but capable group of people (think also the last part of “Full Metal Jacket”) at the end and filter it through the politics of “Zero,” you’d have this movie.
Set against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, it tells the tale of the Navy SEALs mission, Operation Red Wing, in which four men were sent into the mountains to track Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. We’re introduced to the men through short, reasonably effective snapshots of their training and downtime as they prepare for the Op. They’re played by Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell (upon whose book the film is based), the medic and sniper of the team; Taylor Kitsch (“Savages”) as the team leader; Emilie Hirsch (“Into the Wild”) as the team spotter and communications officer; and Ben Foster (“X-Men: The Last Stand”) as the Sonar Technician.
Then it’s into the thick of it, as our Navy boys are dropped into a rugged mountain terrain, and start to make their way closer to where Shah is supposed to be, and does indeed prove to be hiding. Then the unexpected happens, and they’re set upon by a small group of local goat herders, including two children and an old man. The team has to decide what to do, knowing that the wrong decision could completely compromise their mission. They decide to let them go, and it isn’t long before Shah’s people come after the team and all hell breaks loose.
The rest of the movie details their fight against the unrelenting enemy and their attempts to get help and get the hell out of there in one piece, if possible. As you might have guessed from the title, things don’t end well for most of them, but that’s putting it mildly, and selling the movie short. To say that these guys are merely tough is to do them a disservice, to be sure. As the film progresses everyone is shot at least once, they fall down massive hills into trees and onto rocks, breaking bones and who knows what else, all the while desperately trying to get word to their superiors that the mission is done and they need to be evacuated. At one point, one of them is shot in the head, and keeps on trucking like it’s no big deal. Now that’s valor.
Make no mistake, some of this is awfully hard to watch, least of all knowing that it actually happened to real people. Director Peter Berg most definitely doesn’t flinch away from the horrors of battle, and there are some undeniably cringe-worthy moments, notably a scene in which Wahlberg pulls sizable slivers out of various parts of his body, not to mention the scene where he self-retrieves a bullet from his side. To say that this film is not for the faint of heart is to understate matters. I’m a hardcore horror fan and even I glanced away at times.
As exciting and intense as the battle with the Shah’s men is, the real point of the movie is how every action in war has repercussions, and can have ramifications you don’t expect, often when you least expect it. It also shows how much impact the actions of a few can have on the outcome of a war, and how those actions don’t always come from where you might expect. It’s so rare to get both sides of a war in a film like this, so it’s genuinely heart-rending to find that there are still heroics found in the most unexpected places, even among those one might be hesitant to trust, like the people caught in the crossfire of a war they didn’t want or ask for.
I also liked that the film ended on a montage of the real-life people the movie told the story of, as a beautiful version of David Bowie’s “Heroes” by Peter Gabriel played. While the glances at the people we get early on are a bit slight, these glimpses into their real-lives via old photographs of them and their loved ones really helps drive the point of the film home, which is that in war, everyone matters, no matter what part they play or how seemingly insignificant it may seem at the time. That’s an easy thing to forget if you’ve never served, and it’s nice for us civilians to get an effective reminder of that. For that alone, “Lone Survivor” gets an A.