If the title “Lone Survivor” isn’t clear, the early scene of Marcus Luttrell being airlifted to safety without his unit tells you all you need to know about the ending: Other soldiers who go into the mountains of Afghanistan to kill a Taliban leader didn’t come back.
So this adaptation of Luttrell’s autobiography doesn’t try to build suspense. Nor is it character-driven: We know hardly anything about Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), his superior officer (Taylor Kitsch) or the two other guys on the mission (Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch).
Screenwriter-director Peter Berg has one ambition: to show what life in danger is like, hour by hour, as the alerted Taliban come after the men who are coming after their leader.
The climax of the film comes right in the middle. It’s the longest firefight I’ve seen onscreen (yes, longer than the opening of “Saving Private Ryan”), as the four try to hold off a bigger enemy force.
Berg maneuvers the American soldiers carefully, so we always know what’s happening to them. Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, who has shot all but one of Berg’s six features over the past decade, sustains suspense amid the woods and boulders, and the sound design team keeps us in the thick of battle. Sometimes, the soldiers can barely see or hear, but they stagger forward, and we think, “Yep, it must be this way.”
The film has one moment of moral ambiguity that may, perhaps, represent America’s situation in Afghanistan overall.
The four encounter unarmed goatherds, one of them a little boy, near the Taliban village. They have three options: Shoot the trio, tie them up (probably leaving them to freeze at night or be killed by wolves) or let them go, knowing at least one will scamper back to the village to raise an alarm.
They debate the wisdom of each course, partly afraid that an execution will end up in footage on CNN and jail terms for them, and finally make a choice. Their dilemma echoes the one faced by their superior officers, who know exactly where the Taliban village lies but realize woman and children may die if they bomb it.
The film takes a surprising turn when Taliban-hating Afghan villagers find the crippled Luttrell. (Wahlberg does his best acting here, while Luttrell is enraged and frightened at the same time.) The movie explains their behavior well enough, though I doubted a couple of things that happened afterward.
Those were the only incidents I did doubt, except for moments in the action sequences. However tough Navy SEALs are – the movie begins with shots of real SEALs undergoing rigorous training – they’re not going to survive if they bounce down the side of a high hill and smash face-first into a rock. (No training can make the human cranium harder.)
It says something about “Lone Survivor” that I rarely entertained such thoughts. It has been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award for outstanding action performance by a stunt ensemble, and I can’t think of a 2013 picture that deserves one more.
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