“Lone Survivor” may be hell to sit through, but it’s part of a long Hollywood tradition of commemorative combat films, soldiers’ stories that grieve for fallen brothers and find hard, simple truths in notions of sacrifice and courage.
The problem is that the wars we fight aren’t simple anymore and the best recent movies about them — from “Three Kings” to “The Hurt Locker” to a dozen great documentaries like “Restrepo” and “Gunner Palace” — aren’t simple either. They have to address contexts of why we’re there, whether we’re wanted, how culture clashes macro and micro, military and civilian, play themselves out. To not do so, as Peter Berg’s rousing, well-made field tragedy does not, is to end up with an old-fashioned war movie. And I’m not sure that’s fair to what Marcus Luttrell went through.
In late June of 2005, four Navy SEALs were dropped into the mountains of Afghanistan’s Kunar province, their mission — code-named Operation Red Wings — to travel over the ridges and kill a local militant leader and Taliban associate named Ahmed Shah. Before they descended to the valley, the quartet was discovered by three goatherds; after some debate, the soldiers let them go. Within an hour, they were pinned down by dozens of enemy combatants wielding AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
That ordeal takes up the major portion of “Lone Survivor,” and it gives the lie to the movie’s title. If Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg) was the only one who made it out, the emphasis is on the gauntlet run by all four: Luttrell, the superstar lieutenant Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), communications specialist Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and sniper Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster). As they take bullet after bullet, tumble down sheer rock onto jagged boulders, and pick off as many “bad guys” as they can before the inevitable, the trauma of what they’re going through only binds them tighter and more movingly.
The actors are excellent, as are the bruising re-creations of the firefight and the uncountable injuries sustained. The film honors Murphy’s climactic act of courage — for which he received a posthumous Medal of Honor — and takes stock of the awful fate of the Chinook rescue helicopter and the 16 men aboard it, including SEAL Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana). From the movie’s opening sequence — footage of SEAL training that plays like a recruitment film for masochists — to the bitter, moving end, “Lone Survivor” is a paean to the harsh romance of endurance.
Still, what happens if you’re the only one who endures? There are aspects of this story that don’t make it into Berg’s account and that might have made for a richer, more ambiguous, more ambitious film — a story true to both a soldier’s experience and to human nature. In a recent “60 Minutes” interview, Luttrell confessed to a moment of cowardice that haunts him still, laying down his gun in terror and exhaustion as the dying Murphy called his name. That’s not in the film, but what if it were? How would that dishonor the event; how would it not convey the terrible abyss of war? When a combat film refuses to acknowledge fear, does it become propaganda?
Luttrell was rescued by a Pashtun villager named Mohammad Gulab (Ali Suliman), who hid him from Shah’s fighters in keeping with an ancient tribal code of protecting strangers. The soldier stayed in the village for six days before American forces reached him; the film compresses that time to two days and invents a stand-off with the villains, replete with a near-beheading and a cute kid (Rohan Chand) handing the hero a knife so he can fight Shah’s No. 2 man in hand-to-hand combat (despite a broken back). Right, it’s a movie, we need drama and closure. Why not look levelly at those six days, then? Marcus Luttrell came to know his saviors — he and Gulab remain close friends — so why can’t we? What’s Berg afraid of? Audience boredom or just an understanding of the people whose country we’re in?
For the record, Gulab suffered for his choice. The Taliban killed family members, burned down his house, and blew up his car. He appears to not regret his decision, which is a story I’d like to hear. Luttrell is now a public figure and published author who wrestles with the guilt of being alive while his fellow SEALs aren’t; that’s a story I’d like to hear. In 2009, he went on a four-county armed chase to capture men who randomly shot his therapy dog, named DASY in honor of his fallen comrades’ nicknames; that’s really a story I’d like to hear.
Instead, Berg gives us courage under fire and a moving, bullet-chipped plaque of a drama. It’s very good as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough anymore.