Lone Survivor

by Sean "Keanu Grieves" Hanson

EXPECTATIONS: The last time Mark Wahlberg was in a war film set in the Middle East, we got the masterpiece Three Kings. But that was neither based on a true story nor set during an ongoing conflict, so my enthusiasm is tempered.

REALITY: Here's a general rule explaining the screenwriting science of films about military operations that go horribly wrong: The likelihood that a character will live to see the credits is inversely proportional to the amount of time they spend dwelling on or talking about their lives back home. If you don't know who wrote the book on which Lone Survivor is based and you know nothing about casting procedures, you could use that rule to figure out which of its four protagonists will earn the dubious titular honor. The guy who spends a good chunk of the film discussing his plan to buy an Arabian horse for his new bride back home? Yeah, he's probably not going to make it. Similarly, the guy who reveals nothing about himself besides encouraging his friend to buy an Arabian horse for his new bride back home -- well, he's going to live. Probably.

There's a spoiler in the title.

Lone Survivor nips at the heels of Black Hawk Down in recounting the disastrous Operation Red Wings, in which U.S. military forces sought to capture or kill Taliban commander Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami, who played a similar role in Brothers and "Arab Cabbie" in Crank). We follow SEAL Team 10 -- Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), and petty officers second class Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) -- from the briefing room to the mountains of Afghanistan. There, the SEALs are supposed to watch Shah's compound and report back to base via radio. Unfortunately, radio reception is spotty from their side of the mountain and, complicating matters, they run afoul of four goatherds who put them in a quandary: The SEALs can either a) violate the rules of engagement and kill these unarmed civilians or b) cut them loose and hightail it to the extraction point before the goatherds can alert Shah to their presence.

In the film, as in real life, the SEALs choose the latter, decreasing their odds of survival tenfold because -- surprise, surprise -- the goatherds can get down a hill faster than the SEALs can climb a mountain. And what follows is an extended sequence that deserves mention as one of the most intense firefights in film history, pausing only so its characters can roll down the rocky mountainside, a feat stunt men apparently accomplished without safety equipment. Other critics have called it "war porn," Passion of the Christ by way of Black Hawk Down, as writer/director Peter Berg captures -- sometimes in slow motion -- every bullet wound, grenade blast and broken bone in a film full of bullet wounds, grenade blasts and broken bones. I disagree. Berg, who is emerging as one of this generation's brightest directing talents, simply appears to be double-underlining the horrors of war and the consequences of violence. He's forging a visceral connection between his audience, most of whom will never serve in the military (much less as a SEAL), and men who were doomed the minute they chose to do the right thing. You're more likely to know and connect with pain than what it's like to snack on a turd-esque energy bar while sitting on a bed of Afghan shale, which is a horror of war on its own.

Berg also shows an affinity for the minor details of military life -- sunburned heels in a pair of flipflops, temporary housing constructed from plywood, the big-screen TV and bootleg DVDs in a makeshift soldiers' lounge -- and an interest in the psychology of men who live beyond the limits of normal American experience. The title sequence is a montage of real footage from SEAL training, set to a soaring dirge performed by Berg's favorite band, Explosions in the Sky. We watch as these so-called frogmen are bound, tossed in a pool, near-drowned and resuscitated. In the final shot of this sequence, several SEALs sing "Silent Night" as frigid waves lap over their bodies. Lone Survivor is obsessed with how little SEALs fear death and how much abuse their bodies can take -- par for the course in androcentric action cinema, but Berg's insistence on explicit violence takes this to shocking new heights, as the SEALs persevere despite literally becoming the once-proverbial bullet sponges. While shooting at the Shah's men, one character is surprised to learn he is still functioning despite having been shot in the head. Another loses most of his trigger hand and takes six or seven more bullets before a neck wound finally stops him.

A finely-bearded ensemble if ever there was one.

As written, the scene in which the SEALs debate the dilemma of the wandering goatherds is a truly surprising and disturbing scene. Assuming there's parity between the film and its source material, there's an uncomfortable honesty when two now-dead SEALs, usually sanctified in the construction of history, argue for the murder of four unarmed civilians who appear to side with the Taliban. It's disturbing because, as a veteran, I can understand their rationale -- by killing the goatherds, the mission to kill a far more dangerous man, thus sparing the lives of American soldiers down the line, could proceed uncompromised -- even if, as a person who tries to live morally, I disagree. It's a complex moment in a film that's marred by overwhelming simplicity elsewhere, as Lone Survivor apparently hasn't learned the lessons of Black Hawk Down -- or, hell, 300.

Once again, the enemy is presented as an indistinguishable, inhuman monolith, waves of robed and nameless men who set upon the heroes with AK-47s and RPGs, their motives left unexplored. Irredeemable monsters who shout things in Arabic and strip dead bodies of their belongings, you know. (Jordan "CloseFriend" Saïd, who writes a blog about images of Arabs in cinema, said that, while the Taliban are contemptible assholes who give Arabs a bad name, the idea that they would steal from the dead sounds like "the sort of generic asshole move a screenwriter would add in to put a cherry of nausea on top of their shit sundae.") Meanwhile, the film engages in a lot of rah-rah patriotism and sometimes stretches its military fascination into fetishization, to the detriment of its credibility. It's not plausible that, after suffering several gunshot wounds and broken bones, a SEAL would take aim at a guy 100 yards away and mutter, to no one but himself, "You can die for your country. I'm gonna live for mine. I am the reaper." Maybe that's a commentary on the indoctrination of othering and SEAL dogma, but it's more likely a side effect of military input at every stage of the filmmaking process, trading objectivity for accuracy. And its accuracy may be questionable; its source material has been criticized for tripling or quadrupling the number of Taliban fighters SEAL Team 10 actually encountered.

There's usually a lapse between the end of a conflict and a film that sees a conflict in three dimensions. Platoon came eleven years after we left Vietnam, and Three Kings came eight years after Iraqi forces left Kuwait. With American soldiers still in Afghanistan, having just left Iraq, I suppose the period in which we're able to see films that distill the truth of these conflicts has yet to begin. In its effort to depict the nauseating violence of any military conflict, Lone Survivor is a small, furtive step in the right direction. Otherwise, it's retreating to the mountains.

There Was a Firefight!11/10
Explosions in the Sky Makes Really Pretty Music, Even When It's Used to Stir Patriotic Loins8/10
Pretty-Boy Actors as Rough-and-Tumble Navy SEALs9/10
Politics, Typecasting of Yousuf Azami, Thematic Simplicity, Etc.0/10

MINORITY REPORT: I hrate gunds :( - Ian "Professor Clumsy" Maddison

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