Unabashedly celebrating the US military and its mission in Afghanistan, Director Peter Berg works from the script adapted from the Marcus Luttrell bestseller about the ill-fated 2005 mission of SEAL Team 10. Luttrell received the Navy Cross for his actions in 2005 following the bloody mission that was called Operation Red Wings. It is a story that just could not be made up. “Lone Survivor” painstakingly covers those events that were violent, tragic, and ultimately life-affirming.
In the film, Operation Red Wings has four Navy SEALs dropped into a remote location in Afghanistan where they are to perform reconnaissance and surveillance. Once at that location they find themselves in a bit of an ethical dilemma having been discovered by noncombatant goatherders. In time, the object of their surveillance, a wanted bomb maker and Taliban leader, becomes aware of their presence. Outmatched nearly 10 or 20 to 1, the small SEAL team must flee for their lives up a mountain and beyond while returning fire.
Berg’s hyper action direction style is perfectly suited for the material. The film quickly evolves into one extended firefight. It is harrowing and exciting but not in gratuitous way. Having not read the source material, and only being generally familiar with the story, I was able to watch the film without any preconceived opinions or information, and I think that helped. Of course, I believe diehard fans of the book should be very pleased–“Lone Survivor” is a hell of a good film. The firefight is so in-your-face that it is impossible to stop watching.
Mark Wahlberg, who plays Luttrell, is a good choice because the role requires almost nothing but macho physicality. The other members of the cast are equally up to the challenge with Ben Foster, as a SEAL nicknamed Axe, delivering probably the best performance in the film. Frankly, Emile Hirsch seemed a little out of place as a rugged SEAL but showed us that he can do this kind of thing.
The chemistry between the four main actors, which also includes Taylor Kitsch, is critical to making the film work, otherwise, the movie would just be an empty collection of battle/action sequences. And this is where the casting of Hirsch and probably Foster with the more beefy Kitsch and Wahlberg is important. The often surly and sarcastic Foster delivers a familiar and spot-on performance and the sensitive Hirsch shows us the fear that any human being would experience under those horrific circumstances. I remember interviewing Hirsch in Toronto for his work in Sean Penn’s film “Into the Wild,” and I wouldn’t characterize him as an intimidating guy. He’s short with a slim build and wouldn’t be my first choice when thinking about someone to play a rugged military man of action. But the casting really works here as does most of the other choices in the film.
I would imagine that critics that have problems with the movie will focus on the jingoistic elements and the adoration that is heaped on the US military in both the opening sequences and the closing credits. But, for me, an American, with a family tradition of military service, it was really moving. In fact, I was affected more perhaps by the photographs of the actual SEALs than by anything in the movie that dramatically recreated the events. It is almost as if the film imitates true life but exposes the limitation of the dramatic narrative medium. The best stories just can’t be made up.