There is a reason for Lone Survivor's title. It's not a metaphor, analogy, or cheap trick to fool the audience. Viewers won't meet a plot twist or mind-bending revelation during the climax. It's a built-in spoiler. Lone Survivor ends with, well, a lone survivor.
While most features don't advertise predictability as a bragging point, in hindsight—to my surprise—Lone Survivor improves as a narrative. Much like Paul Greengrass's brilliant United 93, we know the characters' fates, which means that tension snowballs through the story. Director Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights, Battleship) knows that we know where he is going. Yet instead of throwing up smokescreens to hide the inevitable, Berg concentrates on two goals: getting us to the end, and helping us feel when we get there.
Based on the bestselling book by Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor chronicles the incredible true story of Operation Red Wings, a 2005 U.S. mission to capture or kill senior al Qaeda official Ahmad Shahd. After a quick landing in northern Afghanistan, four Navy SEALs make their way to a small village near the rugged Pakistani border. The team, made up of Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Petty Officer 1st Class Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), and Petty Officers 2nd Class Matt Axleson (Ben Foster) and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), quickly locates Shahd and his small army of combatants.
While they bunker down for an extraction, the situation takes a quick nosedive. Three Afghani goat farmers—one of them a child—stumble upon Luttrell and company. Out of contact with base, the team is faced with a nearly impossible decision: cut the innocents loose and compromise the mission, or kill them and finish their business with Shahd.
As the SEALs thumb through their options, eventually releasing the prisoners, Berg leverages our knowledge of the story to reinforce the team's ethical dilemma. Hindsight allows the viewer to thoroughly grasp what's on the line—the stakes are higher than even the characters realize.
Lone Survivor forces us to wrestle not only with the team's decision, but also with our own ideas about right and wrong. Can we justify an action if it will prevent greater loss in the future? In this way, we're pushed one to consider the idea of morality itself—is it merely what yields the ultimate "good" as a whole? Is it a byproduct of our ancestral survival instincts?
If either of these explanations are true, the ethical dilemma in Lone Survivor seems moot. Kill the herders, likely sympathetic to the Taliban, and complete the mission: murder is justified because it is for the "ultimate good." Axleson makes this point during the team's intense discussion: "Shahd killed twenty marines last week. We let him go, forty more will die next week."
Perhaps inadvertently, Lone Survivor reflects a biblical sense of morality by indirectly praising the team's decision, a choice that puts a greater cause over this present life. Risking one's life to live by a code of honor is noble and courageous. Morality is more than a temporary end goal or path to survival. It provides meaning. It is a reflection of something greater.