Recently Navy SEALs have been immortalized on film, especially for real actions in which they’ve participated. We’ve seen SEALs free Captain Phillips from the Somali pirates and the Zero Dark Thirty raid on Bin Laden’s secret compound. There was also Act of Valor, a fiction story which used actual Navy SEALs as actors and live fire exercises to show what the team can do. SEALs (an acronym for Sea Air Land teams) are trained to be the best warriors in the Armed Forces. Before qualifying as SEALs they go through over a year of training, including parachute jump classes and demolition training, and then after they qualify there’s a subsequent year and a half of training. Physically they’re strong, but that’s only part of it; there’s also a mental stamina required. The dropout rate for potential SEALs is around 90%. These are warriors use to winning. But even Superman had to deal with Kryptonite, and warriors do lose.
Lone Survivor looks at one of those losses, a June 2005 battle on an anonymous mountain in Afghanistan that cost the Armed Forces the highest casualty count of SEALs ever. It’s based on the memoir of Marcus Luttrell, one of a four-man SEAL reconnaissance team that ended up having to fight their way off the mountain.
The movie begins with the men of SEAL Team 10, deployed to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. An operation code-named “Red Wings” (from the Detroit hockey club) is given to the team, the goal to capture or kill a Taliban leader responsible for the ambush deaths of dozens of US soldiers. Intelligence has him at a village in the Kunar province. The Quick Reaction Force commander, Lt. Cdr. Eric Kristensen (Eric Bana) chooses four of his men to be inserted on the ground to survey the area and make sure the target is there.
The team is composed of Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), under the command of Lt. Michael “Murph” Murphy (Taylor Kitsch). The night helicopter insertion goes fine, and the men climb a mountain that should give them a good vantage point to observe the village. But from there the mission quickly deteriorates. Their planned observation point doesn’t work, their radio communications are spotty at best, the number of Taliban soldiers in the village is far above what was expected, and then they’re discovered by a group of goat herders.
(Warning: Spoilers after this point – though from the title you can guess some of them.)
There is some Hollywood embroidery on the story. After the SEALs capture the herdsmen, there’s a debate about what to do with them, since the team knows the men will tell the Taliban that the soldiers are on the mountain. In reality, there was no debate. The herdsmen were non-combatants; they had to be released. Another difference is time is compressed – the fight actually lasted 5 days, not the 3 days of the film. Near the end of the movie, when he’s down the mountain, we see Luttrell running from the Taliban. At that point in the real battle, Luttrell was almost paralyzed from a back injury. It would have been too much to watch what actually happened, which was Luttrell crawling for 9 hours, using his knife for leverage.
Director Peter Berg (Battleship, The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights) collaborated with Luttrell while writing the screenplay, and Luttrell was on location in New Mexico. It makes for an exceedingly honest portrayal of the engagement. Overall this is Berg’s best film, and he does justice to SEAL Team 10. He labored for over 5 years to bring the story to the screen, and worked for the minimum Director’s Guild salary to help the movie stay under its $40 million budget. (In contrast, the budget of Battleship was north of $200 million.) Wahlberg and Kitsch also took cuts in their regular pay so that the film could be made. It’s gratifying that the movie almost matched its budget in its opening weekend box office, the second best January opening ever (just a little behind the J.J. Abrams production Cloverfield).
Wahlberg also produced the film, and his portrayal of Luttrell is some of his best work ever. They had to fight to cast Foster (3:10 to Yuma) in the film, but it pays off with his intense yet vulnerable performance as Axelson. Both Hirsch and Kitsch are also at the top of their game. Luttrell himself appears as a SEAL member early in the film who spills coffee and tells a rookie on the team to clean it up.
It’s not mentioned in the film, but Luttrell was awarded the Navy Cross, as were Dietz and Axelson posthumously, and “Murph” Murphy posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor. This is not an easy movie to watch, but it is an important one. For years Hollywood glamorized combat. Then Saving Private Ryan came along and underlined the human cost of war. Lone Survivor brings that cost up to date. While it may be hard in the haze of political rhetoric calling for war, we need to remember that politicians aren’t the ones who fight the battles. We should never commit brave men to battle without all the support they require, as well as maintaining our covenant as a nation with them once they come home.
There are two montages that bracket the movie. The first, during the opening credits, shows actual film of the intense training of SEALs. The final montage is composed of pictures of those involved in the battle, most of whom died. We see them with their wives on their wedding days, or with their children, or with their band of brothers. For me, that was the hardest part of the film to watch.