“Lone Survivor” is gripping, unrelenting, brutally proficient moviemaking, a just-the-facts war movie about four Navy SEALS on an Afghan mission gone fatally wrong.
Director Peter Berg puts behind him the hyperbolic nonsense of “Battleship” to concentrate on the unsparingly detailed basics. No matter how furious the action, we’re never unclear about each combatant’s location or what the next objective is. Even when explosions swallow barked-out commands, and the action becomes nightmarishly concentrated, we’re never in pandemonium. The film is scrupulously rendered chaos.
It opens with what appears to be documentary photography of grunts undergoing the famously rigorous SEAL training that washes out all but the elite few. Efficiently, it establishes the film’s four protagonists as men of admirable courage. There’s Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), whose memoir of the 2005 mission inspired the film; Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), the legendarily tough lead officer; pragmatic Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster), and baby-faced communications specialist Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch).
The film’s title makes it clear that only one of the team will live to see the next Veterans Day, but the inevitability of their deaths doesn’t diminish the movie’s raw dramatic power. The recon team drops deep in mountainous territory to pinpoint the whereabouts of a vicious Taliban leader. There’s suspense in the very terrain, as they cross treacherous peaks to reach their target. The mission briefing included warnings about rattlesnakes and even poison oak. Soon enough they are in a “cursed mission” where skin rash is the least of their worries.
Losing radio contact with home base isolates them in hostile territory. They locate the Taliban chief, and, in turn, their presence is discovered by goat herders. They debate killing the villagers, but Luttrell objects. The rules of engagement forbid harming noncombatants, and there’s no way to conceal such a crime: “ ‘SEALs kill kids,’ that’s the CNN headline.” The decision is made, the mission is compromised, and a superior Al-Qaida force attacks.
The bulk of the movie is an extended series of bloody battle scenes, with each wound graphically presented. The effect of the incessant violence is to make the horror of war more horrible by showing its effects plain at close range. The actors, never actorish, whisper and shout their dialogue with a convincing blend of obscenity, anger and desperation.
There are many opportunities to be melodramatically manipulative here, but Berg sidesteps them. The story venerates its front-line warriors as clear-cut heroes. But the film strikes me as ideology-free. One person will see “Lone Survivor” as a rah-rah recruiting poster; another will interpret it as a sad testament to wasted blood, treasure and human potential.
It’s tricky to read deeper meanings into a real-life incident, yet there’s a sense that fate rewarded Luttrell’s pardon of the goatherds, when Pashtun Muslim villagers later save his life at a terrible cost to their tribe. Watching “Lone Survivor” is a shattering experience. How you jigsaw your fragmented emotions back together afterward is wisely left up to you.