Mark Wahlberg plays Marcus Luttrell, the only SEAL Team 10 member who survived the real-life Operation Red Wings mission in Afghanistan. You know he’s the only survivor because it’s in the title, and because it’s made abundantly clear in the opening scene of Peter Berg’s film. There is no suspense regarding the fate of the three men who went on the mission along with Lutrell to take out a Talibani warlord, Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Axe Axelson (Ben Foster). The characters, like their real-life counterparts, die, and they die in a brutal fashion.
In many films, where you know the fate of the characters going in, that sense of suspense is often replaced with a sense of doom, but Peter Berg infuses Lone Survivor instead with a sense of appreciation for the men we know gave up their lives under harrowing circumstances not for the good of the country, and not for any overriding political purpose, but for each other. It’s one of those films where you get so caught up in the reality of what’s being depicted that it’s difficult to separate out the merits of the filmmaking. I mean, look: Taylor Kitsch is in this, and Peter Berg doesn’t go easy on the Explosions in the Sky, so it’s hard not to think to yourself the entire time, “Oh God, Riggins is gonna die.”
That it’s difficult to separate the film from the reality it is depicting, however, is a testament to how effective Berg is here, and with the gunfight scenes in particular, which make up a good hour plus of the two-hour film. They are well crafted and intense, though obviously heightened for dramatic effect (the sound effects editing should get special recognition, if only because it’s a movie where you notice the sound effects editing). It’s during those scenes between the four SEAL Team 10 members and the Taliban fighters that Lone Survivor works best, combining the realistic chaos of battle, the sense of camaraderie between the four men struggling to both survive and take as many men out as they can before they perish, and also a real sense of loss for these men, whose fate was sealed the minute they set free two Talibani children and an old man instead of killing them, knowing that they’d run back to the warlords and rat out the SEALs’ location. It is gripping, unsparing, and unbelievably bruising, and all four of the lead actors do exemplary jobs of making us feel something for the characters in between the bullets and busted bones.
But like a lot of war films, there’s also a jingoistic flavor to it, as Berg seeks to glorify and celebrate these men. To his credit, Berg comes by it honestly. Both Berg and Wahlberg have expressed a lot of admiration and respect for Luttrell’s efforts, and sought, best they could, to recreate the action from Lutrell’s memoir. Berg’s passion for the project, and for the efforts of these service men, is apparent in every second of film. Ultimately, it almost feels as though Berg may have sacrificed a few dramatic opportunities (especially near the end) for the sake of realism, and the result is an experience where you leave the theater not thinking, “Wow, that was an amazing movie,” but instead thinking, “Wow, those were amazing men.” You may not feel a lot of pride for some of the military war efforts of our government, but it’s impossible not to feel a sense of pride for these courageous men, and leave with a heavy heart, thankful for their efforts, and heartbroken for the families who had to give them up.