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.
Lone Survivor also spends a lot of time in an eerily realistic battle in which our heroes are outgunned and at a logistical disadvantage—an unflinching, gritty byproduct of modern military combat. Violence becomes a main character with every wound, bone-crackling snap, and drop of blood. War is hell. It is grisly, bleak, and relentless.
At a recent screening of Lone Survivor, I talked with Berg about his motivation to make the film. "I feel very strongly about the story, but more importantly, I feel very strongly that we as Americans need to acknowledge the sacrifice that some of the very best and brightest [of our country] are doing on our behalf," Berg noted. "It's real, it happens, and I think it's very, very important that we pay respect to these men."
This is revealing, and gives us a lens through which to view the film, which is most properly a docudrama. Berg's chief objective is for audiences to appreciate the pain, loneliness, and difficult decisions our military personnel experience each day. Because of this, his commitment to Luttrell's story takes precedence over his desire to tell a perfect cinematic narrative. Accuracy trumps plot—unlike, say, American Hustle, in which real events are openly edited and facts changed for the sake of character development.
Some will inevitably view Lone Survivor's plot as excessively simplistic, sacrificed to the gods of violence and gritty realism. But the film's motif fits together precisely as it is intended: Berg wants you to exit the theater with a sense of appreciation for military sacrifice. Casualties are not simply numbers on the news—they are real, breathing individuals with friends and loved ones.
In cinematic terms, it's not a perfect film. There are times when the violence—specifically a back-to-back-to-back mountain tumble—seems a bit redundant. Yet, its main concern isn't being a perfect film, as much as it is being an accurate one. Sometimes backup doesn't arrive. Sometimes doing the right thing means suffering.
For this reason, Lone Survivor won't be labeled a cinematic masterpiece, though it is an exceptional war film. It's best viewed as what it is: a docudrama, with sections that recall the camaraderie and intimate action sequences of Saving Private Ryan or touch the intensity of Black Hawk Down. The performances are strong and the direction is steady, though the story could benefit from more character development.
While Lone Survivor is bleak at times, it also has a sense of hope: that there are good men who do what's right, despite the consequences; that even when dark times make us question God, miracles still happen around us. In the end, good still exists. Like the film, we know it's coming. We just have to take the journey first.
Lone Survivor is rated R (no surprise) for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language. The film attempts to be fairly realistic in its depiction of military combat. Individuals are shot, killed, stabbed, and there is plenty of blood to go around. There are heavy doses of profanity, and the f-word is passed around between the SEALs in nearly every scene.
Wade Bearden is a minister, writer, and adjunct instructor at Southwestern Assemblies of God University. You can read his blog at www.wadebearden.com and follow him at @WadeHance.
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