Based on ex-Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s book about a 2005 mission in Afghanistan that went shockingly and tragically bad, Lone Survivor plays out like the antithesis of the standard hoo-rah military-themed action films that have been a staple of American cinema since the 1960s. Much like similar fact-based films Black Hawk Down and Captain Phillips, the fact that we know the outcome in advance (the title pretty much says it all) doesn’t work against the level of tension in Lone Survivor — if anything it heightens it, and then drenches it in a palpable layer of dread. The inevitability of death and loss lingers over every frame.
For the most part, writer and director Peter Berg (whose credits are as broad as Friday Night Lights, Hancock, The Kingdom, and Battleship) gives a straightforward account Operation Red Wings., a fairly standard mission that sent a four-man SEAL team (played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch in a remarkable set of performances) into hostile territory to capture or kill a high-level Taliban commander. Stalled by the unexpectedly large enemy numbers in the area, their mission is compromised when a trio of goat herders two stumbles across their location.
A heated, almost panicked debate rages over whether to kill or release the captives (an elderly man and his grandchildren), at least one of whom is openly hostile to the team. Lt. Murphy (Kitsch) opts for the latter, and quicker than you can say “No good deed goes unpunished”, the team becomes embroiled in a running firefight with dozens of Taliban soldiers.
The covert ops mission thus turns into a rescue mission, one repeatedly stymied by a perfect storm of faulty communications, limited resources, and just plain bad luck. It becomes a nightmare scenario of what happens when the cavalry just doesn’t arrive.
Berg and opens the movie with the standard scenes of camaraderie, competition, and banter — the proverbial quiet before the storm — before shifting to a more serious tone and throwing his characters into the thick of it. He does a fine job of fleshing them out with just a little cliché. The eclectic selection of actors (which includes Eric Bana as their commanding officer) seals the deal with fearless, no-frills performances. Wahlberg’s only fumble ifumble is when his Boston accent surfaces while in playing a native Texan.
It all makes for a great anchor for what is ultimately an action-driven movie — and a brutal one, at that. The team is shot, blasted, and sent tumbling down mountain slopes in horrific sequences. Somewhere along the way it stops being an action-drama and turns into a stark, harrowing survival story, one that doesn’t shy away from the horrors and degradation of war. Berg stumbles a bit at the finish line, however, by opting for a disappointingly rote Big Action Climax that doesn’t quite jive with what comes before; we’re also too exhausted to engage by that point. Oddly, it’s an unreal moment that makes what preceded it all the more unforgettable.