Brothers in Arms

Lone Survivor
(USA, 123 min.)
Written and directed by Peter Berg
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster
Taylor Kitsch as Mike Murphy and Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor
Based on the failed mission “Operation Red Wings” which tasked four members of SEAL Team 10 on June 28, 2005 to kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, Lone Survivor is an under-the-radar drama that could take audiences by surprise when it opens in January. Awards prospects might not be the in the sights of this late-in-the-game player, yet Lone Survivor should provide solid drama and inspiration for those looking to avoid both art-house award season fare and the annual glut of “January releases”. This true-life story is a compelling and inspiring film, and a sturdy effort from writer/director Peter Berg (Battleship, Friday Night Lights).

Mark Wahlberg stars as Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor of “Operation Red Wings” who lived to tell about the fight he and his brothers in arms held when they were ambushed and vastly out-numbered by Taliban forces. Luttrell and three other SEALs—Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsh), and Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson (Ben Foster)—find themselves in a precarious situation when they’re faced with death as a consequence of doing the right thing. The SEALs are holed up in the forest outlying the hiding spot of Ahmad Shah and, while they’re waiting for the opportunity to kill, a trio of goat farmers stumbles upon them. The farmers seem harmless, for they’re just an old man and two boys. However, the SEALs know that letting them go will inevitably signal their presence and blow the mission.

Having gone dark—due to covert reasons and consequences of shoddy communication—the SEALs must debate the options amongst themselves. The three passersby would be collateral damage and save the mission, but they’d be direct violations of the rules of engagement and bring an inevitable firestorm as fallout of the media coverage of Shah’s death. The also poses obvious ethical quandaries—can a SEAL kill an innocent to complete a mission? Can a soldier break legal and moral rules in the fight for justice?

The questions arise more directly and less provocatively than they did in last year’s Zero Dark Thirty, as the SEALs debate aloud the issue that Kathryn Bigelow dramatized through visceral scenes of torture that were shrouded in moral ambiguity. Lone Survivor, then, is sure to avoid any controversy that befell Zero Dark Thirty, especially since the SEALs take the high road more explicitly than Jessica Chastain’s noble Maya ultimately did with her investigation. Consequently, Lone Survivor might not incite as necessary a debate about America’s presence and tactics in the Middle East, but a much different story is being dramatized in this case. They have vastly dissimilar objectives, so the only noticeable difference between Lone Survivor and Zero Dark Thirty is that which separates Berg and Bigelow as filmmakers. (There really is an art to what Bigelow can do.)

Lone Survivor is less about interrogating the brutality of war and more about celebrating and upholding an idea of fraternity that is the base of American wartime ideology. Lone Survivor is, above all, a story about the bond that exists between soldiers as they fight in the name of free America. As the four SEALs defend themselves to the death, Lone Survivor illustrates how each hit absorbed by a soldier is felt by the members of his team. Lone Survivor looks like a war movie, but it feels like a western as our four all-American heroes stand their ground in the rocky terrain and trade fire with some villainous outlaws. It’s a story of strength and honour, and of upholding a moral authority even if it brings dire consequences.

Lone Survivor thankfully returns the code of honour to the Afghan citizens in the town near the brutal confrontation that leaves Murphy, Dietz, and Axelson dead and Luttrell severely wounded. Luttrell is discovered by a villager, who protects him from the Taliban army under the pre-Islamic code the Pashtunwali, which requires one to protect person his enemies. It’s a necessary turn of representation, as the SEALs of Lone Survivor essentially trade fire with a bunch of cunning and bloodthirsty Afghans for the first three-quarters of the film. Lone Survivor shows a moral authority that exists in various corners of the globe.

The film’s strong sense of honour has an undeniable whiff of good-old American patriotism, though, as Lone Survivor’s dramatization of the SEALs’ last stand feels like a gripping and realistic depiction of war. The action is stark, visceral, and surprisingly brutal as the violent depiction of the SEALs’ deaths refuses to shy away from what they endured. Rather than cut from the deaths of these three men, Berg and editor Colby Parker, Jr. hold on the SEALs as the final kill shots rip into their bodies. It’s a tough film to watch, but the graphic nature of the film is essential to honouring how valiantly these gunslingers fought in their final hours. Lone Survivor pays a fine tribute towards the fallen SEALs with its rousing score by Explosions in the Sky and with the cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler that mixes Saving Private Ryan-like grittiness with sweepingly elegiac shots of soft light enveloping the SEALs’ final mission.

The film is especially affectionate towards its four heroes. Top-lined by a strong Mark Wahlberg, the four actors pay tribute to the fallen SEALs by underscoring their humanity: the SEALs are stealthy warriors, yet the actors show them to be as flawed and as vulnerable as the ordinary folks watching the tale that unfolds onscreen. These soldiers grit their teeth and stand tall like John Wayne, but they also shed tears for the families they’ll never see again. Lone Survivor is a brutally stark film, but an inspiring one at that.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Lone Survivor opens in theatres January 10th.