“Lone Survivor” **1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch
Written by: Peter Berg (screenplay), Marcus Luttrell (book)
Directed by: Peter Berg
***CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD**
*Note- in the text of the following review, I will question the film’s depiction of military actions, from the perspective of a film fan and a citizen, not an expert on military operations or military life. I make a conscious effort to keep my politics out of my thoughts on films, and I hold a deep respect for military personnel, military families, and understand the need for occasionally extreme measures in the world we live in today- that doesn’t mean I’m going to take it easy on a movie.
I need to be upfront and admit that I’ve had a difficult time formulating a response to this film. On one hand, it was a very solid, albeit Hollywood-ized version of a true story. On the other hand, the actual true story was different in important ways, and finding out about the inaccuracies after seeing the film frustrated me to no end. I’m left feeling very neutral and blasé about the whole thing- for if it’s not real, does the film really honor those that lost their lives? Does it really show us the true nature of heroism if it’s partially fabricated? “Lone Survivor” works in some ways, but there is no getting around the cynical feeling that comes from knowing creative license has trumped the truth.
The film is based on Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s account of the events surrounding Operation Red Wings in 2005. As the film explains, this mission’s intent was specifically to assassinate Ahmad Shah, who was (is?) allegedly an Al Qaeda/Taliban general, responsible for multiple U.S. deaths, and was/is considered a generally abhorrent guy. The plan was to have a team infiltrate the camp where Shah was located by crossing the rough terrain of the Afghan mountains and take him out quietly. I like how the film takes its’ time showing the prelude to the chaos, which allows us to see how harsh the environment is in Afghanistan, and how difficult it must have been to navigate on foot as a foreigner. Also, the way the film sets up how this team clicks, or for that matter how all Navy SEALs click, was portrayed well. These men are put through so much mental and physical stress to become SEALs that it’s not at all surprising how close-knit these men are. They’re brothers through and through, and there was never a doubt about that.
I’m sure former and current military personnel would say that missions can be meticulously planned, but still go wrong due to unforeseen variables. “Lone Survivor” has just that type of variable in the form of goat farmers, who just happen to be wandering in the same area where the SEAL team is resting before carrying out their task. It seems innocent enough- until a Taliban communication device is found on one of them. It brings about a terrible dilemma- can these soldiers complete their mission independent of this threat, or do they have to break the rules of engagement to go forward? The decision they make decides the team’s fate and sets the stage for the rest of the film.
It can be assumed by his demeanor that the younger, sinister-looking farmer will go back to the village and tell Shahd’s men about the team. If he does, the mission is compromised- if the soldiers tie them to trees, it’s possible they’ll never be found, or eaten by wildlife. It’s an impossible decision, but one SEALs are trained to handle. I did wonder why there was even a discussion about the decision- after all, they’re robotic in their responses for a reason.
They choose humanely, and in doing so, must call off the mission and seek high ground for an extraction. Unfortunately, their super high-tech communications gear cannot muster a signal in the mountains, leaving the team isolated and vulnerable. It’s clear once team lead Mike Murphy (Kitsch) senses there’s a problem, that a gunfight is imminent. Up until this point in the film, I wasn’t really annoyed by anything- it was appropriately patriotic, feasibly real, and organized.
Once the fighting began, however, disbelief crept in. Sure, I bought the expertise of the SEALs, but as others have been keen to mention about the last half of the film, the body can only take so much. It’s hard to believe anyone, even the best of the best like SEALs, could absorb multiple gunshot wounds, and multiple falls upon sharp, jagged rocks, then keep fighting. Does SEAL training prepare individuals to do what seems like the impossible? I don’t have an issue suspending disbelief in the right situation, though, and when I finished, I accepted the film as a slightly overproduced, occasionally aggrandized version of a true story.
Then I read stuff. Specifically, I read a Slate.com story (which referenced the site OnViolence.com) that detailed what the inaccuracies of the film are. I understand why creative choices are sometimes made to dramatize true stories; what I can’t understand are conscious choices to make already brave individuals appear superhuman, and fabricate events that are already monumental. Director Peter Berg was quoted as saying “We never set out to do something non-Hollywood or Hollywood. We just literally told the story.” If they did just ‘tell the story’, why does the film depict Luttrell as flatlining as the film opens and closes, when the apparently reality was quite the opposite, per Luttrell? Why does the film invent an old Afghan villager that brings the news to the U.S. base that Marcus is hiding in one of their homes, when the truth is that U.S. forces found him while scouring the mountains? Why did the film invent the entire last battle sequence in said village? Why is that Luttrell was on set, moving the actors around to get them in more accurate positions according to the real event, yet he hasn’t said anything publicly about the fabrications?
I think I know the reason, and I feel sad for it. Films like “Act of Valor” and “Zero Dark Thirty” have been successful, in part for attempting to accurately reproduce the military experience on film. I haven’t seen either film, so I cannot comment on the quality of either, but I sense “Lone Survivor” is capitalizing on their success. Cynically, I can’t help but think that someone in charge of this project saw dollar signs, and those spoke much louder than giving a voice to this story, or a greater audience to help honor the fallen from this mission. Even Wal-Mart is selling a tie-in documentary about the life and times of Lieutenant Mike Murphy (not a bad thing, but it raises my skeptical flag). As a straight Hollywood film, this works just fine, but discovering the inaccuracies behind the final product disappointed me. I feel the true stories of our military heroes are perhaps more important, and thus should be depicted without grandiose creativity. It’s enough that they did what they did.
Again, the story itself is powerful and intense enough to hold our attention; exaggeration for dramatic purposes isn’t necessary, and could be considered harmful if you consider this film is honoring the sacrifice of these men. All things considered, wouldn’t the story of Operation Red Wings be served better as a documentary? It is, after all, a true story- something Hollywood always pays lip service to until it’s actually time to present it.