Based on the failed Navy SEALs mission Operation Red Wings in 2005, Lone Survivor is a war film telling the tale of four Navy SEALs who were tasked with killing a Taliban leader in Afghanistan. Everything should have gone right, but then it all went wrong thanks to an over-reliance on shaky communication technology and a chance encounter with a local goat herder, whom they had to let go lest they commit a war crime and whose release led to what seemed like an entire Taliban army popping up and gunning (most of) them down. The title kind of spoils that one of them makes it out alive.
The four SEALs: Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch). These were or are all real people and their real names have been used here. After about 45 minutes and their mission is compromised, their communication equipment cuts out and the Taliban start descending from the hills. They’re now in a fight for survival, one only a single individual (it’s Luttrell, and that’s never in doubt) will survive.
He doesn’t do it alone. His comrades help him out a great deal, all of them talking about ten times the punishment that a normal human would. Director Peter Berg seems to love showing just how abused the bodies of these individuals become. Wounds are presented in graphic detail. So many shots hit these men. A tumble down a cliff lasts so long and then has to be repeated. It might appear realistic and it very well could be, but it felt excessive to me.
The middle section of the film is this fight for survival. The four men — and later three, then two, and finally one — shoot at countless members of the Taliban, and get shot by just as many. There’s no strategy, just shooting. I hate to say it, but it gets boring. It should be thrilling or at the very least scary. It’s none of this. Eventually the barrage of bullets becomes background noise but nothing more interesting happens in the foreground. Dialogue is limited to orders and profanity.
And then, after this gunfight is over, Luttrell winds up being helped by some local villagers. They hate the Taliban, too, although we learn what their true motivation is in the epilogue text. This makes for a far more tense experience, even though there isn’t as much shooting. We knew all but one of the soldiers was going to die but what about these altruistic civilians? We don’t know their fates. Watching a dying Lutrell try to survive and communicate with people he can’t understand also makes for some strong cinema.
The title does inevitably remove some of the suspense. When you know the lead can’t die it’s hard to really feel tension when the film hopes to generate it. Lone Survivor also plays really hard at these people being real, and that’s why we should care. It does a terrible job of characterization, even in the scenes when that’s all it’s doing. One of them — I can’t tell you which — is getting married. A new recruit — who doesn’t even end up mattering — embarrassing dances. There’s no point.
That’s especially true when the major gunfight is happening. Everyone winds up so bloodied, bruised, and covered in mud, and the camera shakes so much, that you’re going to struggle to tell who’s doing what at any given time. They all look the same — save for Ben Foster who has blonde hair, not brown — and it’s hard to tell a shout from another shout. We might be able to tell them apart if we cared more and learned more about them, but they could be generic soldiers for all it matters.
Lone Survivor wants to present these men as valiant, courageous, patriotic, and all other positive words that the US Army would approve of being called. It does this just fine. Perhaps it also paints them as super soldiers, but that’s only a small issue. It has no more ambitions beyond portraying them as heroes and telling the unbelievable true story. It succeeds at both of these. It might not quite work well as a film or even as a narrative production, but if something accomplishes its goals and nothing more while not winding up a complete waste of time, that’s not a bad thing.
I’d like to say that it was worth hiring actors as good as Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch to play these soldiers, but the truth is that they’re all underutilized. After the fighting begins, anyone with their type of physique and the appearance of a generic white male could play these roles. They’re definitely not bad, and there’s a bit of fun to be had at the beginning when they mock each other, but it would have been nice to make them feel more like real humans and less like generic soldiers who get shot a bunch.
A well-paced and incredibly graphic recreation of Operation Red Wings, Lone Survivor accomplishes its two main goals — tell this story and do it while presenting its characters are Real American Heroes — and does little more. If you want to see a violent depiction of what these SEALs went through back in 2005, this is a film you’ll want to watch. If you instead want a war film with strong characters and non-repetitive action, you should look somewhere else.