So, despite never having had the inclination to join the Canadian Armed Forces, I must admit to having something of a weird military fetish. I get a kick out of researching the histories, the equipment, the vehicles and the missions that various branches of various militaries have used over the last 100 or so years. In my collection of Military History books, a large number are dedicated to the harrowing and perilous behind-enemy-lines missions of the American Long Range Recon Patrols (LRRPs) that operated in the jungles of South East Asia, during the Vietnam War. Using my overly male fascination, I recently decided to start looking for similar stories emeging from the Vietnam War of my generation: Afghanistan.
One book that came to my attention was ‘Lone Survivor’; the true story of a 4 man recon element that embarked on a seemingly cursed mission into the arid mountain forests of North Eastern Afghanistan. Acting as something of a spoiler, the title refers to the one man, Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, who emerged from that desolate and treacherous area a broken and bloody mess, having been forced to leave the mutilated bodies of his 3 teammates behind, after seriously running afoul of their intended Taliban target. The main, written details of the mission were interesting but I found that Luttrell’s ‘Rah Rah America’ approach to his story, and his tendency to lump the Liberal media into the same negative classification as The Taliban, to be something of an insult to my own Left-leaning non-American sensibilities (and perspective). I got 3/4s of the way through the book before one too many derogatory references to ‘liberal media’ forced me to cast it aside…temporarily. However, as details of the film began to emerge during it’s production, I knew that I would wind up searching it out in rather short order.
Directed by Peter Berg (The Kingdom), the script stays very close to the point-by-point account of what went down in those mountains back in 2005, and doesn’t shy away from showing the terrible wounds inflicted on, and by, these 4 SEALs as they tried to flee after having been compromised.
As detailed in the book, the 4 man team, consisting of Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Team Lead Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), communications tech Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and rifleman “Axe’ (Ben Foster), were inserted into inhospitable territory to overlook a suspected enemy village, in order to find a prized Taliban commander believed responsible for the deaths of 20 Marines a week earlier. After being stumbled upon by 3 suspicious ‘goat herders’, the SEALs, fueled by a spark of Humanity, decide to let them go (as opposed to murdering them and having ‘liberal media’ find out), and then to get the fuck outta Dodge. This decision proves to be a fatal one as, in short order, they are set upon by an overwhelming force of determined Taliban fighters.What then transpires is a long and brutal ‘run n gun’ escape attempt through the mountain forests; an attempt that sees 3 of the men violently killed after a determined stand. Luttrell, escaping via a fluke tumble down a mountainside, is then found by a small group of traditional tribal enemies of The Taliban, who take him in, to shelter him till help arrives. Doing so results in the ire of the pursuing Taliban warriors, who later lay a fierce assault on the village to try an reclaim their badly wounded American prize.
With ‘Lone Survivor’, director Peter Berg has effectively done away with the foul odor that his last film ‘Battleship’ (2012) left on his filmography; a film that he directed for Universal on the expectation that they would finance and distribute THIS film in return. The man clearly has an acute understanding of how to stage a military movie of this magnitude, and his ‘styling’ easily plants this film next to other excellent war flicks like ‘Black Hawk Down’ (2002), ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2009) and the HBO series ‘Generation Kill’ (2008). The story is lean and economically told, doing away with the pro-Republican ‘flavoring’ of the book and focusing solely on the failed mission at hand. After a credit sequence using stock footage of real Navy SEAL ‘hopefuls’ during the notorious ‘Hell Week’ section of SEAL training, the first 15 or so minutes are spend watching the guys and their various team mates and superiors at the staging ground of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. We see them good-naturedly hassling one another while they maintain contact with their loved ones back home, leading up to the reveal of Operation Red Wings; the mission that the flick revolves around.
Berg must’ve developed a sweet deal with the US military to tell this story, as the equipment and vehicles on display are rather impressive. We get CH-47 Chinook helicopters, AH-64 Apache gunships, Black Hawks and even the fearsome AC-130 Spectre, which puts on one helluva display. Yes, I am acutely aware of this crazy CGI stuff that the kids always talk about…but this shit looked GOOD! The costumes and props the actors were ‘kitted’ in are ALL completely convincing, especially when they show a surprisingly touching photo montage of the real guys all ‘kitted out’ for battle at the end, as a comparison.
On a technical level, ‘Lone Survivor’ is on top of it’s game. The practical effects (squibs, explosions etc) are very powerful and accurate, along with a terrific sound design (the far-off booming gunfire and the chattering echoes through the mountains were chill-inducing), and make-up effects that border on ‘gut-wrenching’. In the gore department, ‘Lone Survivor’ pulls no punches. The grievous wounds the SEALs endure are vicious, as are the reactions to them. Some of what is on screen is genuinely hard to watch, much like a lot of real combat footage out there. The 4 main actors do the portrayals of the doomed men justice, even uncannily resembling the deceased ‘frogmen’ they’re portraying. Wahlberg is the only one of the group who is noticeably different from the real, round-faced, 6’2 Texan Luttrell, but he manages to bring enough ‘bearing’ to the role to make it work.
All in all, ‘Lone Survivor’ is a tough, unflinching retelling of a doomed mission that occurred in the last 10 years, during a war that should’ve ended ages ago. It’s proficient in it’s portrayal of the events, the cinematography is gritty and gorgeous, the sound design is top notch, and the acting works effectively. If you’re a fan of modern war films, then this one is a sure bet. Not necessarily a ‘must see’ for the theatre, but the Big Screen presentation certainly added to the experience.