What to say about a war film whose outcome is evident in the title? In the case of Lone Survivor, you commend the outstanding job done by writer-director Peter Berg in telling the remarkable true story recounted by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell in his book of the same name. In 2005, medic and sniper Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), gunner’s mate Danny P. Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and sonar technician Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster) were deployed to the Afghan mountains as a surveillance team for Operation Red Wings, a mission targeting Taliban commander Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami) and his fighters.
The movie doesn’t go much beyond cliché in establishing the camaraderie among these SEALs while in training. But once on duty, Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom) proves a virtuoso at showing how action defines character. And Wahlberg, Kitsch, Hirsch and Foster add to the impact.
The story changes course when the four SEALs, hidden on the mountain slopes, are seen by three unarmed Afghan goatherds. Are they Taliban? And if so, should they be executed to save the mission? Murphy, the ranking officer played with subtlety and power by Kitsch, follows conscience, not tactics, and persuades his team to let them go.
Then what? Ambush, is what. After the youngest goatherd runs down the mountain to inform on the SEALs, Taliban forces, numbering 140, gather on a ridge and start shooting. Cut off from HQ and badly bruised from rocks and branches while rolling downhill, the four SEALs take their own share of casualties. But they are fatally outnumbered. The bravura filmmaking in this sequence is astounding. But Berg’s real achievement is keeping the human element front and center as Luttrell watches his comrades picked off one by one, despite a daring helicopter rescue attempt.
All praise to Wahlberg for a performance of shattering ferocity and feeling, especially so when Luttrell, at his most vulnerable, is offered protection by an enemy father and son. Berg rightly lets the people trump the politics. Like the best war movies, Lone Survivor laces action with moral questions that haunt and provoke.