With a title like “Lone Survivor,” clearly this war drama will not end well. And since it’s a documented case of 19 Navy Seals on a mission to take out isolated, high-level hard target Ahmad Shahd in Afghanistan in June 2005 narrated by the last man standing, Marcus Luttrell, the blood, sweat and tears will be mixed with a minimum of triumph.
Director Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”), working from his own script adapted from the New York Times Bestseller, proceeds to dig in deep to the Navy SEALS psyche and to understand who these individuals are, rescuing them from reductive statistics. At the same time, he embeds the audience so deeply in the men’s perspective on the doomed “Operation Red Wings” mission, that the experience is visceral and intensely disturbing.
The result is a contemporary “Platoon,” a band-of-brothers war story. Even for someone like me that isn’t a natural or easy fan of that genre, I recognize that one chief pleasure is the opportunity it provides for a group of actors to peel back pretense and reveal their characters at their most frightened, challenged and, even, transcendent. Real men cry on the battlefield, particularly when it’s a stony outcropping in Afghanistan and a once buff body has become a rag doll chewed by a vicious pit bull.
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“Lone Survivor” presents a band of bearded brothers, perfectly cast. As the leader back at base, Eric Bana commands with ease. He’s an actor who I generally appreciate more in an ensemble than when he is forced to assume the mantle of the movie’s hero. Then there’s the tight quartet deployed in the field, played by Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster and Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell himself. This is another project, so very different from “The Fighter,” that Wahlberg wisely produced and chose for himself.
We see enough of these men before their ill-fated mission to know thumbnails of their hopes and dreams, and see the rigorous training that has pounded them into a working team. Then the movie proceeds, after a surprise encounter with goats on a remote mountaintop, to show that there are still places on the planet where all the high-tech toys of the U.S. Military ultimately reduce to the brains and brawn of the men on the ground.
From that point on, it’s a grim episode of “Survivor,” with gun battles against Taliban on their home turf, bones crunched, bullet wounds, hissing snakes, and ferocious flesh wounds. While there is some conflict within the quartet on the ground, the extent to which they have each other’s back is a genuine human masculine love story, if draped in blood and gore and itty-bitty-bits of bone.
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And, given the nature of these Navy SEALS, and where they live emotionally to protect us on the distant frontiers of the empire, this is not a peacenik critique of war. It’s a movie that could inspire grudging, grunted praise from a John Wayne.
There are hokey bits, even if they arose from true experience documented in the book. When Luttrell befriends an Afghani boy, who mistakes the American soldier’s request for a knife intended for self-surgery (look away!) and brings a fowl instead, it’s corny. But no cornier than the scene in “Fruitvale Station” where the Oakland ex-con Oscar attempts to rescue a dying dog run over by careless motorists.
“Lone Survivor” is not an Awards movie in the way that “Zero Dark Thirty” was, but it is muscular movie making about real men who are not like you or, at least, me; brawny, bearded brave men that have pushed their bodies and minds farther than most American citizens in service of our nation.