As depicted in Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor,” the four Navy SEALs behind Operation Red Wings found themselves in a mighty moral dilemma during their 2005 mission to eliminate Taliban leader Ahmed Shah. Having captured three hapless goat herders who came across their position, the team -- Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) -- argues over whether to keep these two young boys and one old man tied up, take them all out or let them loose and risk being tracked down by Shah and his forces. Murphy ultimately opts for the latter and hopes for the best, asking aloud afterwards, “Isn’t that how things work? Good things happen to good people?”
Of course, as the title of both the film and Luttrell’s own memoir reveals, very bad things happened instead and Berg renders each punishment with a fierce, nearly fetishistic amount of detail and distress. After all, to quote a fellow frogman, “moderation is for cowards.”
“Survivor’s” centerpiece is a half-hour-long firefight that sees our boys navigating mountainous Afghanistan terrain in pursuit of a communications signal that could save their asses, unifying the actor-turned-director’s established reverence for clearly presented action geography (“The Kingdom,” “The Rundown”) and military might (“The Kingdom,” “Battleship”). This crucible reinforces the sense of camaraderie portrayed on base between these men and their fellow officers (Eric Bana and Alexander Ludwig among them) in those few moments when the action itself isn’t running the gamut from exciting to exhausting, from noble to numbing. Between the equally -- almost interchangeably -- gruff performances, the severe sound and stunt work, and some wince-worthy make-up effects from the rightfully revered KNB team, it’s an impressive ordeal to rival the most harrowing moments of “Black Hawk Down.”
Alas, the prolonged carnage equally evokes the likes of “The Passion of the Christ,” and what’s worse, Berg and company struggle throughout to walk the line between honoring individual feats of bravery and glorifying wartime brutality. The film goes a full ninety minutes before introducing any turban-clad villager that doesn’t immediately present a threat (including a conveniently heroic moppet); each of the three main casualties expires with their own slow-motion moment of martyrdom accompanied by Explosions in the Sky’s endlessly triumphant score; and the amount of Taliban foes is distinctly embellished from reported figures, all the better for anyone who gets a hard-on at the sight of Hadji headshots.
Generally devoid of any greater political context, the film doesn’t do away entirely with subtlety. Two beats of typical sentimentality are literally blown open by artillery -- after all, combat knows no such preciousness -- yet Berg nonetheless bookends the mission with a 3-minute intro of real SEAL training and a 4-minute coda set to an especially mournful Peter Gabriel cover of “Heroes,” each moment just daring the viewer to question any dramatic contrivance amid such documented sacrifice. “Lone Survivor” ultimately seems at war with itself, torn between its duties as an entertaining, engaging movie and a somber, sincere memorial, and in splitting the difference, the film effectively assaults its audience almost as aggressively as its subjects.
SCORE: 6.8 / 10