A Movie Review
of Lone Survior (2013)
By Lance Zedric
A month after watching Lone Survivor (Universal – 2013) I feel like I’ve been gut-punched. Hard. I’m still trying to catch my breath and make sense of a cinematic effort that was patriotic, reverent and well-intentioned as any I’ve watched, but one that left me unfulfilled in a Hollywood sort of way. With that said, I’m proud of director, Peter Berg and his crew for bringing to light an amazing story of courage and sacrifice, and even prouder of the real men who face such dangers every day.
Before seeing the movie, I had managed to distance myself from the onslaught of media hype and stay relatively objective, but despite a boycott of movie trailers and online reviews, it was hard to avoid the Hollywood barrage. HBO’s mini-biopic on Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell—the central character in the movie based on the best-selling book, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10 (2007) by Luttrell and ghostwriter Patrick Robinson, took care of that. The well-timed teaser laid out the basic story of the four-man SEAL recon team sent into the mountains of Afghanistan in June 2005 to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, and how Luttrell, an heroic and tragic figure, emerged as the lone survivor.
The movie opens with a wonderful montage of archival footage from the Navy’s Basic Underwater Demolitions School (BUDs), and gives a glimpse into the toughest and most realistic military training in the world—training that separates the SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) operators from everyone else, and later illustrates how it prepared men like Luttrell to survive. The mantra, “Never Quit,” is a central theme and compels the viewer to question their own mettle—which is always a bonus.
Fast forward to Afghanistan. Following a cursory and non-linear attempt by Berg at flushing out the central characters at the staging area, the SEAL team is inserted into the mountains to conduct its mission, but is ultimately [spoiler alert] discovered by goat herders, which provides the movie’s central moral dilemma—whether to kill the herders or to let them go. This scene draws the audience in and forces it to make its own value judgment and to question if the team’s decision to spare the herders, even if it could lead to discovery and death at the hands of the Taliban, was the correct one and justified the cost.
This is when the movie gets intense. Luttrell and the outnumbered SEALs engage in a valiant fight against the superior force that results in everyone being killed except Luttrell, who is severely wounded. Luttrell’s efforts to elude the Taliban become the focus of the film, while the U.S. military’s effort to mount a hasty rescue parallels the action. This leads to the gut-wrenching loss of 16 men when their helicopter is shot down by the Taliban.
Just when all seems lost, enter Gulab, a sympathetic Afghan villager who hides Luttrell in his home despite the obvious danger of being murdered by the Taliban. It is the humane juxtaposition of Gulab and few Afghan villagers and their tribal code of Pashtunwali—a willingness to help a stranger—even a perceived enemy—that strikes a restorative chord. Ultimately, Luttrell is rescued, and the movie is punctuated with an emotional tribute to the Navy SEALs who perished during operation Red Wing.
The glaring shortcoming of the movie was the lack of a back story and character development. Luttrell’s persona was barely explored, which was unusual in that he was the central figure, and his team members were afforded even less. The movie would have been more enjoyable if the characters were flushed out and more elements of the book included. The technical aspects of the movie earned a B-plus, as the special effects, military details, and stunt work were especially realistic, accurate, and intense.
Hollywood heavyweight Mark Wahlberg brought his A-game to the movie and put his customary tough, gritty stamp on the depiction of Luttrell, whose real-life grittiness would be hard to match on celluloid or anyplace else. Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster were equally convincing in their portrayal of the other Seal team members and conveyed the professional responsibility they surely felt in accurately representing Luttrell’s comrades. But for me, the most compelling role was played by Luttrell, who made a few cameos as a SEAL team member in camp and as part of the ill-fated rescue team. To recreate the ordeal on film must have taken immense inner courage, but hopefully, it also served as a catharsis and helped Luttrell ameliorate the survivor’s guilt that he seems to bear.
Overall, Lone Survivor should be viewed as an ambitious, well-intentioned, artistically credible, and mostly factual account of a tragic event, but it will not be remembered as a top-tier movie. While the effort might have been better served as a documentary, it should be commended as a solid piece of cinematic work that evokes a deep sense of appreciation for the toughness, commitment, and professionalism of those in uniform, and reminds us of the emotional and physical scars that so many veterans—past and present—carry with them. And to that end, mission accomplished.
Actor Mark Wahlberg as Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell