Navy SEAL is a tough gig. Just ask Marcus Luttrell, the former SEAL who penned the true-story book “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10,” which chronicled Luttrell and his SEAL Team’s harrowing encounter with a small army of Taliban fighters in the Afghanistan mountains in 2005. As the title of the book — and now film — already reveals, only Luttrell made it out of those mountains alive to tell the tale. And oh, what a tale it is. The book was an amazing read, and the movie version, written and directed by Peter Berg, does it justice. There are some diversions, of course, and the final battle in the Afghan village is overly exaggerated for Hollywood effect, but they take nothing away from the film’s central themes of brotherhood, loyalty, and courage.
Four went in, and only one came out. That one is Luttrell, a 6’5″ Texan played by Mark Wahlberg (I’ll give you a second to digest that) as a not quite the smartest bear in the woods, but he’s certainly one tough S.O.B. As are the SEALs in his unit — team leader Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), young Danny Deitz (Emile Hirsch), and tough-as-nails Matt Axelson (played with absolute ferocity by Ben Foster). Inserted into the Afghan mountains in pursuit of a Taliban bad guy, the unit instead comes under fire when they are discovered by goat herders. Rather than execute the civilians, the unit decides to take the high road and ditch the mission and head home. Unfortunately for them, one of the Afghans they release alert the nearby Taliban forces.
From that moment on, it’s run and fight, kill, bleed, and run and fight some more. Although the film has been compared to “Saving Private Ryan,” I wouldn’t go that far. Don’t get me wrong, there is an insane amount of violence as you would expect, but the carnage isn’t quite as visceral and soul-crushing as Spielberg’s movie. It’s brutal, but it’s more precision combat, unlike the lambs to the slaughter moments of “Ryan.” There are a lot of mountain jumping thrown in there, too. And not the superhero type of mountain jumping, either. When Murphy orders his men to take a leap of faith down the side of the mountain, you hear and feel every crash and bump and bruise and gash. Once Berg cranks up the gunfight, it’s non-stop action for a huge chunk of the movie, as the SEALs fight their way side to side, then down the mountain — and at one point, are forced to fight their way back up it, right into the teeth of the bad guys.
There’s no getting around it — everyone dies in “Lone Survivor” except Wahlberg’s Luttrell. It’s right there in the title. So you’re just waiting for it to happen, hoping and praying it might not happen. Berg sticks to the body count, though, so there’s no Hollywooding the casualty list. While Wahlberg is the central figure, it’s the other characters that shine. Ben Foster is outstanding as Axelson, the kind of trained badass you would absolutely love to have watching your back. There is a great scene where Axelson realizes he’s been shot in the head that just perfectly encapsulates the character. Kitsch acquits himself incredibly well, enough that you’ll likely forgive him for “Battleship” and other past missteps. I think this is where Kitsch shines best — as part of an ensemble and not required to carry a film.
It’s been widely reported that Peter Berg took on the directing chore of Universal’s ill-conceived and poorly received big-budgeted “Battleship” to get studio support to direct “Lone Survivor.” You can tell how much he loves these guys in the way he presents them, the way they are slowly revealed as living, breathing men — their personalities, their relationships with each other, with their loved ones back at home. In many ways, the reason why we know so little about Luttrell in the movie is because this is the story of these three other guys — Murphy, Axelson, and Deitz. The real Luttrell (who makes a couple of cameo appearances in the movie) has made it his personal mission to remind the world about the courage and loyalty of his friends on the Afghan mountainside that fateful day. Good on you, Marcus Luttrell, you’ve done a hell of a job.
My only real nitpick with “Lone Survivor” the movie is the third act, which feels too rushed. Not surprisingly, this is also where Berg takes the most liberties with Luttrell’s story, and Hollywood unnecessarily inserts itself. I can understand why Berg thought he had to do it — after the mountain battle, Luttrell is mostly sidelined from his injuries. So Berg felt the need to jazz up the ending a bit, which is a shame, because I think it undermines the courageous actions of the real Afghans that saved Luttrell’s life. But it’s a minor quibble given how good the first 90 or so minutes of “Lone Survivor” have been. And it’s pretty damn good.
Peter Berg (director) / Peter Berg (screenplay), Marcus Luttrell, Patrick Robinson (book)
CAST: Mark Wahlberg … Marcus Luttrell
Taylor Kitsch … Michael Murphy
Emile Hirsch … Danny Dietz
Ben Foster … Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson
Yousuf Azami … Shah
Ali Suliman … Gulab
Eric Bana … Erik Kristensen
Alexander Ludwig … Shane Patton