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Courage Under Fire In 'Lone Survivor'

Universal Pictures
L to R: Taylor Kitsch, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch

I’m guessing that anyone that goes to see a movie named “Lone Survivor” will assume from the title of the film that only one man comes out alive, right? And that when the producer of the film, Mark Wahlberg, is also the star, that he’ll be the said survivor, yes? Wahlberg plays Houston-born Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, who with three fellow SEALs was ambushed by Taliban forces during a special operation on a remote Afghani mountain in 2005.

“Lone Survivor” opens with a montage of real SEAL training that sets up the men as being able to withstand the most brutal conditions. The sequence will pay off in the second act of the film, but the first act of “Lone Survivor” establishes the everyday life of the men on base in Afghanistan, as the text their wives, worry about family, and wait for the next mission. These early scenes are played with a breezy casualness and camaraderie. When Operation Red Wings is announced, the objective to take out suspected Al-Qaeda operative Ahmad Shah, the mission is explained in detail so that when things do go wrong, the audience will know it.

Once on the mountain, Luttrell and his team encounter an elderly goat herder and two children. Realizing the operation is compromised, they have to make a decision. Fearing the backlash that could come from killing presumed civilians, they let them go, which turns out to be a costly choice. Within hours, the four SEALs are ambushed by what seems like scores of Taliban fighters. The camera takes the point-of-view of a rifle scope, and at first the fight feels like more like a video game than a dangerous mission as enemy targets are picked off by the American team. Soon, however, they’re overwhelmed. Unable to communicate with home base due to faulty equipment or a poor satellite signal, the men have no choice but to retreat. The prolonged firefight takes up the better part of 45 minutes, and as the men fall back (literally, plunging off of 40-foot cliffs), one begins to wonder how much the human body can take before breaking, and how true-to-life these scenes are as well. 

One by one, Luttrell’s team members, Lt. Michael Murphy, SO2 Matthew Axelson, and SO2 Danny Dietz, succumb to multiple wounds and fractures. Somehow, Luttrell finds a place to hide, and is rescued by an Afghani man who takes him home, nurses him to health, and then rallies his village to Luttrell’s defense against Shah and the Taliban, who, for reasons still unclear, continue to doggedly hunt for the lone survivor, almost like Jason Voorhees continuing to track his last victims throughout all of Camp Crystal Lake.

Luttrell lived to tell the tale in his 2007 book, which has been adapted by Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”) for the big screen. Berg’s choice to focus so intently on the punishing injuries sustained by the SEALs leaves one a little numb, but there are moments of tension and suspense, especially when it’s hard to tell whether the next person to appear onscreen is a friend or foe. Luttrell, once he’s rescued from the firefight, continues to rely on his survival instincts, cradling a loaded grenade in his hand, ready to blow everyone to hell if a false move is made.

Interestingly, save for the moral debate about whether the Rules of Engagement apply to such a dangerous operation, there are few political overtones to “Lone Survivor.” Luttrell meets the best and worst of the Afghani people during his ordeal. Among the end credit photographs of the fallen are clips of Luttrell in real life; he eventually reunited with his savior, a man named Gulab Khan whose adherence to the Pashtunwalicode led him to offer asylum to Luttrell. So instead of politics, if anything--as in “United 93”--you may curse the technical gods and the fates that prevented help from arriving sooner. If only the Apache helicopters would have arrived in time, if only the satellite phone was working, if only the troops had better body armor. Wait, now there’s an idea--I guess you can never escape politics.