Cost of Combat

Lone Survivor is a sobering, powerful war movie

The spoiler is in the title: Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell was the only one to walk away — well, get medevacked away — from a doomed 2005 mission in the mountains of Afghanistan to capture or kill Ahmad Shahd, a Taliban leader who'd targeted U.S. Marines and was an all-around villain.

Now, writer-director Peter Berg, in a gripping bounce-back from his deeply terrible Battleship, has adapted Luttrell's story into one of the more realistic military movies ever (at least as far as someone who's never been in the military can determine), one that acknowledges the powerful fraternity of soldiers without being jingoistic about their work, one that depicts a battlefield's intensity and adrenaline without getting pornographic about it. It's even got something to say about the ironies of modern asymmetrical warfare and the senselessness of the Western military presence in the region.

The giveaway of the title immediately turns some clichés of the war flick into resigned tragedy: The SEAL who has a sweet Skype chat with his wife before heading out on the mission. Another who discusses with a brother-in-arms the appropriate wedding gift for his fiancée. We already know these guys are doomed. And yet, just as these soldiers don't linger on the possibility of their own demise as they troop into the rugged hills to seek out their target, we also forget the inevitable and are caught up in the immediate moment as the mission goes wrong almost instantly.

The mission isn't "cursed," Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) corrects one of his fellow soldiers. "It's just Afghanistan." Hanging over everything that happens is the unspoken suggestion that they shouldn't even be here at all, and they're certainly not prepared for it. As fighting machines, sure: they've been through brutal, almost abusive training, as we see in the montage of (presumably) real SEALs being toughened up that opens the film. But not one in this band of four — led by Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) and including Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) — speaks a word of the language of the hill tribes they're wandering among. That presents an enormous problem when an old man and a little boy shepherding goats stumble upon their hiding place above the village housing their objective below.

Berg does not shy away from the terrible realities of the SEALs' situation, and listening to American soldiers arguing over whether they should kill unarmed civilians in order to protect their mission is horrific. (They fear their presence would be revealed to Shahd if they let the goatherders go, and they can't talk to their captives to determine whose side they might be on; the film makes it plain that plenty of Afghans hate the Taliban.)

The film's centerpiece is an extended firefight, not in the least bit Hollywoodized action, in which the four SEALs sustain awful — and awfully realistic — injuries, are utterly beaten up and shot up, and make decisions aimed at survival that indicate their seemingly abusive training was indeed necessary, and far from too extreme.

From the perspective of mere movie entertainment, the non-CGI stunt work and you-are-there action is riveting, and not like anything you've seen on film before. From the perspective of real-world military activity? We need to find better ways than this of resolving conflicts. We must be insane to let anyone, on either side of this deplorable state of affairs, go through what we witness here. ♦

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    Maryann Johanson

    Maryann Johanson