In all armed conflicts, things can go horribly wrong, either via bad planning, wrong decisions or just plain bad luck — leading to tragic consequences. But even amid these deadly mishaps there are incidences of courage and beating incredibly overwhelming odds against survival — all deserving of recognition.
Writer-director Peter Berg has for years worked on bringing to the screen “Lone Survivor,” the story of a Navy SEALS recon mission in Afghanistan that turned out to be a disaster. The movie is an adaptation of the book written by Marcus Luttrell, the SEAL who barely lived through this horrible incident.
The mission took place in June 2005 and was called Operation Red Wing, with its objective being to capture or kill a Taliban leader named Ahmed Shah. The plan was to drop four Navy SEALS into the rugged terrain of Afghanistan who would do a reconnaissance of the base where Shah was believed to be operating, and if possible take the guy out, or if the base was too well-guarded, to call in more firepower.
The four men chosen for the task were Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt “Axe: Axelson (Ben Foster).
Berg opens the movie with real footage of the rigorous training program for SEALS, showing that many wash out. Then there are the usual pre-mission scenes that set up the characters, their relationships and the camaraderie of these selected, elite few. The mission itself is then laid out by Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana), using a map and models of the helicopters being used.
As usual, these men engage in the usual fooling around but are all-business when the mission commences.
Things go well at first. The SEALS are dropped several miles from their destination and have to hoof it up rocky terrain. When they arrive at the recon area, they discover that Shah has nearly an army of soldiers around him. In addition, the SEALS are unable to establish communications with their base. The decision is made to lay low until dark, then retreat to higher ground and contact the base with an update on the mission.
Unfortunately, an unforeseen event happens. Three goat herders come up to the area where the SEALS are hunkering down, and one has a mobile phone, indicating a possible link to the Taliban. The SEALS have three choices. They can kill the three goat herders and continue with the mission. They can tie up the herders and retreat, risking that the three may freeze or starve to death before being found. They can set the herders free and hope they do not go to the Taliban encampment and report what happened until the SEALS can return to their extraction zone. Since one of the herders clearly is hostile toward them, the SEALS are pretty sure their presence will be revealed once the herders are set free.
Luttrell argues for releasing the herders, noting the restrictions on rules of engagement employed by the U.S. military and the consequences of bringing harm to unarmed citizens. But it is Murphy who has to make the call, and he orders that the herders be freed and the SEALS pack up and go home.
With communications still down, the SEALS still need to get to a location from where they can send a signal. This slows their retreat and soon they find themselves facing an army of Taliban, and for all their training and sophisticated weaponry they simply cannot fight off these overwhelming numbers without support.
A vicious battle ensues and although the SEALS do kill several Taliban, they take their own beatings with gunshot wounds and explosion shrapnel, and are really messed up when they have to twice tumble down steep, rock-infested terrain.
The movie’s title already reveals the fate of Murphy, Dietz and Axelson, so it is difficult to see these outstanding men die. The message that Berg and Luttrell wanted to convey is yet another reiteration of the code of soldiers — that they fight for each other. Even if the objective is not achieved, if all the men come back alive, the mission to them is a success.
There was an additional tragedy. Murphy sacrifices himself so he can get to a peak point and use a cell phone to call for help. But the two choppers flying in for the extraction do not have support from armed Apache helicopters, which have been summoned to another hot spot, and when one of the choppers is brought down by a portable missile, the other is forced to flee.
People who have read Luttrell’s book have criticized the altered ending. Although Luttrell was rescued by members of the Pashtun tribe, which has a code that they protect any person from an enemy, the chaotic and bloody battle between the Pashtun tribe and Taliban trying to get to Luttrell actually was only just a standoff until Luttrell was rescued by U.S. forces. This was seen as a manufactured gung-ho and emotional ending to this story — apparently done with Luttrell’s blessing.
That aside, the objective of Berg and Luttrell was to give a detailed account of what happened and to recognize and pay tribute to the men who died on that mountain. This is a violent and explicit retelling of this incident, and while it does pull the emotional strings, it also in rich detail shows how these men are willing to give their lives to honor the code of watching out for each other.
For the actors, the physical aspects of the roles had to be more challenging, as there was not much time for deep emotional expository. Most of their dialogue, once the mission starts, is pure military jargon anyway. Still, the four stars present tough, dedicated men. You know these guys are tough.