Regular readers will recall that I’ve found it fun on occasion to play a little game called “What If They’d Had a Cellphone?” So many movie catastrophes could have been avoided had the story taken place in the era of instant connection.
Today we’re playing “What If They’d Had a Cellphone and a Satellite Radio and an Unsecured Line, Not to Mention the Technological Advantages of the Biggest, Richest, Most Bad-Ass Military the World Has Ever Seen?” Certainly all that would save the day, whatever sort of trouble might pop up.
Sadly, this time it’s not a game, and sadly, the day isn’t saved. Lone Survivor is the true story of a Navy SEAL mission gone horrendously wrong in the mountains of Afghanistan. Think Zero Dark Thirty minus the happy ending. Director Peter Berg (The Kingdom) has adapted Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 memoir depicting the debacle that was Operation Red Wings.
As the film retells the events, in June of 2005 four soldiers are dropped into a remote patch of the Hindu Kush range with orders to capture or kill a Taliban strongman. The SEAL Team 10 members are Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Gunner’s Mate Danny P. Dietz (Emile Hirsch), sonar technician Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) and Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), a sniper. The four arrive safely, but winding up in the right place is the last thing that goes according to plan.
Glitch one: Mountains block their radio signal. Glitch two: No sooner have they hiked higher in the hope of getting a better look at the village below (success) and a better signal (no luck) than they’re discovered by three guys herding goats.
The herders carry a military-style walkie-talkie, so it’s a cinch they’re Taliban. But they’re also unarmed, so the rules of engagement say the SEALS must let them go. “I know,” says Axelson. “And I don’t care.” Because he also knows that, if they do, enemy troops from the village will descend on them from all sides. Nonetheless, Murphy gives the order to free the herders. So much for karma.
What follows is the most brutally realistic, unrelentingly intense and grippingly choreographed depiction of a lopsided firefight since 2001’s Black Hawk Down. Outnumbered, at the mercy of opponents who know the terrain and unable to call for help until it’s almost too late, the four SEALs absorb astonishing levels of punishment, yet they continue not only to fight but to stay positive.
In the end, this isn’t a picture concerned with politics or patriotism or polemics, but with the bond that battle is known to foster and with the level of endurance and courage human beings are capable of attaining. “Films like this are more useful than gung-ho capers like Behind Enemy Lines,” Roger Ebert observed in his review of Black Hawk Down. “They help audiences understand and sympathize with the actual experiences of combat troops instead of trivializing them into entertainments.”
I believe Ebert would have felt similarly about Berg’s film. It’s that good. Every directorial decision and every performance honors the actions of these men. They’re never trivialized, and watching them can hardly be described as entertaining.
Another thing Lone Survivor can hardly be described as is a “film-length recruitment ad” — as, incredibly, it has been in outlets that should know better. Calum Marsh of the Atlantic, for example, called it “propagandistic” and “almost pornographic in its excess.” I haven’t got a clue where Marsh’s preferences lie when it comes to porn, but I can say one thing with certainty: Watch this movie. The last thing you’re going to find arousing is the prospect of being in these guys’ boots.