Based on Marcus Luttrell’s eponymous memoir, this recreation of 2005’s failed Operation Red Wings, in which Navy SEALs got stuck on an Afghan mountain while attempting to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, is itself a failed attempt to honour those men who died or nearly died on said mountain. The closing montage displaying photos of Red Wings’ (exclusively American) casualties is immensely moving. The problem is the preceding two hours, which begin like a recruitment video, build up to the war movie equivalent of torture porn, and end with an oversimplified resolution that’s willfully oblivious to any larger context.
During the opening teaser, Lutrell (Mark Wahlberg) explains in voice-over that “there is a storm inside” SEALs, “a burning, a river, a drive, an unrelenting desire,” and a lot of other stuff. Once the shit hits the fan, most of what’s spoken in Lone Survivor varies between “Goddamn motherfuckers,” “Fuck you,” “Ow, fuck,” “Fuckin’ fuck,” “Fucker,” “Fuck,” and “Fuuuuuck!” Carnage, chaos and imminent death will stifle the poet in any of us, but such expletive-laden dialogue seems designed foremost as a way of bluntly heightening the rat-a-tat and crunch of bones, which seem to be the key point of interest for director Peter Berg and his collaborators, who strain verisimilitude not only by reportedly grossly exaggerating the number of Taliban involved in the film’s central firefight, but also by hurling our already shot-up heroes down the mountain at high speed, smashing their torsos and skulls into pointy rocks, and having them continue to walk, talk and fight afterward.
Reverence for the dead shouldn’t make this film bulletproof—it should make us that much more concerned with truth and consequence. This is a serious movie, ostensibly dealing with serious questions about war, strategy, policy, and ethics. When discussing whether to eliminate or set free a trio of civilians who accidentally blow their cover, among the four SEALs (Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and Ben Foster) only Lutrell speaks passionately about the imperative to be humane. Which leaves us with an uneasy feeling since—hardly a spoiler—he’s the only one who lives to tell the tale. And in the moral causality of Lone Survivor he’s rewarded for his humanity, by having his life fearlessly defended by an entire Afghan village—though in the closing voice-over he thanks only his brothers. The issue isn’t about what Lutrell feels or says in moments of trauma or mourning; it’s what’s said by this movie, which has the advantage of time and distance, and the burden of memory.