Director Peter Berg opens “Lone Survivor” with actual footage of Navy SEALs training. And with that decision, Berg unwittingly creates a problem, right from the start.
When we’re watching a movie based on reality, we usually don’t get to do a side-by-side comparison of the reality and the fictional account. The real footage tells us dozens of stories in less than two minutes: the faces of these brave individuals, the fire burning in their eyes, the determination in their brows, the tears streaming down their faces as they teeter on the edge of breaking, only to be held up by their brothers as they form an unbreakable bond till death they do part. The images stay with you for the rest of the movie.
And that’s the problem. Very few actors or filmmakers can perfectly capture the humanity or drama of real life. While the opening is effective, for sure, it also somewhat dilutes and confuses the narrative that follows.
Mark Wahlberg plays Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL who wrote the book on which the movie is based. We learn very little about Luttrell at the beginning of the movie, but we learn a lot about the three men who will fight alongside him in what amounts to the fiercest battle of his life, and theirs. There’s Taylor Kitsch’s Mike Murphy, Emile Hirsch’s Danny Dietz, and Ben Foster’s Matt “Axe” Axelson.
While waiting for their next mission, it’s clear these men are more than just friends. They’re a fraternity, if not a family, discussing their wives and fiancées, racing each other across the base and hazing the newest SEAL. But when it’s time for a new mission, they’re all business. In this case, it’s Operation Red Wings: Luttrell and company will be dropped into Pakistan along the Afghan border, work their way into Afghanistan, and attempt to take out Taliban leader Ahmad Shah.
When they find Shah’s base, the SEALs dig themselves in, with the hope of getting a shot at Shah. The mission is compromised when Luttrell himself is discovered by a goatherd, along with his bell-wearing goats and what appears to be the goatherd’s family. Luttrell and the others take them prisoner while deciding what to do. Killing the man and his family would violate the rules of engagement, but leaving them tied up to die would be just as bad.
The soldiers decide to let the prisoners go, climb up the mountain and, hopefully, find an area where their communications equipment will work so they can call aerial support to get them out of there. But it doesn’t work out. Alerted by the goatherds, Shah and his army quickly find the four SEALs, and a brutal fight ensues.
These four actors are terrific. Wahlberg in particular has really come into his own these past few years, doing the best work of his career. His level of commitment here is second to none. Ben Foster, while he’s probably not going to win an Oscar for this role, will win an Oscar one day, because he’s just that good.
If you can stomach it, “Lone Survivor” is a movie you should see. Indeed, it’s worth seeing what soldiers, particularly these Navy SEALs, have to endure when they’re asked to fight on behalf of our country. They’re special people.
On the other hand, there are plenty of other movies that show you the same thing, and “Lone Survivor” does little to set itself apart from them. Again, the real footage shown at the film’s beginning would’ve worked better had it been included when the end credits roll — the real following the pretend, rather than the other way around.
Still, Lone Survivor is a well-acted, gut-wrenching tribute to Navy SEALs in general, especially those who fought, and died, in Operation Red Wings.
Four out of five stars.