The French have Camerone, the British Isandlwana, the Greeks Thermopylae, but Americans seem particularly enamored of heroic last stands, from the Alamo and Custer’s Last Stand through the “Black Hawk Down” debacle in Somalia. Add a new name to that list: Operation Red Wings, where four Navy SEALs operating deep in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush were ambushed by a Taliban force about 10 times their number; they went down fighting, with only one man miraculously surviving to tell the tale.
That man was Marcus Luttrell, and his best-selling memoir “Lone Survivor” comes to the big screen as adapted by director Peter Berg. (Fortunately we get the Peter Berg who made war-on-terror thriller “The Kingdom” and not the one who made “Battleship.”) Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and Ben Foster star as the SEAL team that gets hit, and they look credible enough to have passed muster with the actual SEALs who advised on the film.
War is hell, so they say, but some films make it look more so than others. “Lone Survivor” is one of the toughest war movies you’ll ever see. It captures the bad-ass swagger and ruthless professionalism of the SEALs, for sure, but it also depicts a confused, desperate firefight with savage intensity. Some lefty critics have called it a glorification of war, but while there is heroism depicted, it’s mostly of the sacrificial kind; about the last thing anyone would want to do after seeing this film is run off to a battlefield. Luttrell himself put it best in a TV interview where — when asked if the film was “pro-war” — he said, testily, “I don’t even know what that means. There’s nothing glorious about war, it’s the most horrible thing in the world.”
The story is short on character, long on the doomed op. After a brief intro where we meet the SEALs on their base, which gives some idea of the bonds between them, the film moves quickly into the action: Four men are dropped deep into enemy territory, where they are to scout out a village and determine whether or not a particularly brutal Taliban commander is present. Things get difficult when radio contact is lost, and worse when a trio of goatherds stumble across the hidden SEALs.
It is here that “Lone Survivor” confronts the horrible dilemmas that counter-insurgency presents. When the only clarifying difference between the enemy and civilians is an AK-47, how do you make that call? Do you let the goat-herders go, possibly dooming your mission and yourself if any of them are Taliban sympathizers? Or do you commit what could easily be construed as a war crime? Or is there some way in between? Nerves are on edge and time is short.
Luttrell made a decision, and ethically it was probably the right one, but it didn’t work out too well for the SEALs. He’s since stated that he made the wrong call, but it’s hard not to sympathize with why he made it.
Berg gets a bit too Hollywood in the last reel, and can’t resist the “here comes the cavalry!” finish, but that shouldn’t mar what this film does right. The politics of the Afghan War are the topic for another film, but “Lone Survivor” stands as the only Hollywood feature to bring this mostly ignored decade-long war to the big screen and to ram home to the public what it’s like on the ground there.