There are not many war films where the Americans don’t win. Even in the films where history says they don’t win, they still have a knack of winning. But sometimes a story needs to be told to show that war isn’t always a glorious victory parade for the allies, and that sometimes, when things go wrong, things can go very wrong indeed.
Lone Survivor tell the true story of Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell and his team, who set out on a mission in June 2005 to capture or kill notorious Al Qaeda leader Ahmad Shahd. However, whilst dug in awaiting radio contact with HQ above the village where Shahd has been spotted, several goat herders stumble across them. One of the herders is carrying a radio transmitter, and it is clear they are in communication with the Taliban. The Seals have two real choices- kill them and continue with the mission, or let them go and retreat to higher ground and await extraction. Taking the moral high ground, they opt to let them go and retreat, but this decision backfires drastically, and Marcus and his team are left to fight for their lives, in one of the most valiant efforts of modern warfare.
From the opening credits, it takes seconds for the viewer to realise the brutal, torturous training regime that any man or woman has to face to become a Navy Seal. Only the best of the best make it through, and before the film even starts, it’s clear that Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster are the toughest of men, and they hold a bond which is unbreakable. We know very little about the characters and their lives, but what we know is just enough.
The story begins steadily, as we learn of the mission facing the group of Navy Seals, but it takes a dramatic turn when, after capturing the goat herders, they let them go, and are then endlessly hunted by the Taliban. The battle sequences are spectacular, taking what Saving Private Ryan brought to the genre of war movies, but bettering it. If you close your eyes, you are there. You are in the battle, amongst the explosions and hails of bullets, and, from the comfort of your seat, it is a horrible place to be.
The frequent shots of endless, barren mountains show the bleakness of their situation, and the utter feeling of being alone. If you get a chance, even for a second, picture yourself being there whilst you’re watching the movie, and you’ll get a cold shiver down the length of your spine.
Some of the close camera shots are some of the best scenes in the whole movie , in particular the scenes where the Seals are tumbling down the mountain side in a desperate attempt to escape the enemy. Watching Wahlberg, Kitsch, Hirsch and Foster bouncing off trees,rocks and boulders is truly shocking. You hear every bang, every bone breaking and every toe curling impact, but it forces you to feel the pain they’re in- it forces you to feel the punishment their bodies are taking, and you totally appreciate the losing battle they are fighting, which is ultimately the battle for their lives.
Mark Wahlberg has enjoyed great success recently with several roles in hit comedy films such as Ted, Date Night and The Other Guys to name a few. Lone Survivor is an absolute brutal return to action films, and his gritty performance drives the endless feeling of hopelessness and fear that both the Seals and the audience feel from the second they engage with the Taliban.
Where director Peter Berg, previously of Battle Ship and The Kingdom, shows his mastery is not in the endless gun battles and chase sequences, but in the silence- the quiet moments where the guns stop- the few fleeting seconds where the seals get to catch their breath, reload their guns, and count their blessings. The silences are almost unbearable, and the tension is only shattered by the next bullet whizzing by.
The ending of the film slows down slightly once Mark Wahlberg is rescued by local villagers and taken to their village,but it does not take anything away from the brilliance of this film. Where Saving Private Ryan set the metaphorical war movie bar high, Lone Survivor has taken that bar, and put it almost out of reach.
The whole cast are outstanding in a film that is a tribute to the brave men and women who have fought in Afghanistan. Some of the corny dialogue and an unnecessary slow motion jump sequence does drag the film back slightly, and perhaps reflects Peter Berg’s relative inexperience in the director’s seat, but I defy anyone to leave the cinema before the credits role. The greatest admiration is saved not for the actors, who did an incredible job telling a truly horrific story of survival, but for the brave Seals who never made it home, and whos faces, one by one, appear on screen at the close of the film, and in the blink of an eye, are gone forever….but never forgotten.