I once foolishly concluded the opening of “Saving Private Ryan” was the most disturbing battlefield carnage imaginable. For the devastation of many soldiers, the depiction of the Allies landing on Normandy Beach is without equal, but for an up close and personal experience of being in the thick of it, “Lone Survivor” is unparalleled.
An account of actual events based on the book by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the movie opens with an overview of SEAL training. The time-tested methods of toughening up volunteers wishing to join this elite brotherhood is depicted in effective shorthand. Trainees are bound and nearly drowned to test their psychological and physical strengths. They run miles without pause and lie together in frigid waters — arms linked together while singing gung-ho affirmations until hypothermia sets in.
Looming over these proceedings is a large bell, used by aspiring frogmen to end their pain and suffering. At each step an ever-growing line of helmets placed beneath the rung bell tells of those realizing they’re in over their heads.
Having established the single-mindedness necessary to become a SEAL, the film whisks us off to the plywood cubicles inhabited by the American military stationed at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.
We meet the members of a four-man SEAL team as they begin a typical day. Special-ops team leader Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) sweats the expensive gift requested by his bride-to-be. Mike’s team medic is Marcus Luttrell, who, as Mike’s best man, is chosen to locate the bride’s requested gift at the best price. The team also includes communications specialist Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), who pours over color swatches sent by his wife for the purpose of their pricey home redecoration. Finally, we meet gunner’s mate Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), the most thinly drawn of the group.
A footrace between two men reveals that, among SEALs, losing is pricey. On this particular morning the punishment is interrupted by a briefing from the team’s commanding officer (Eric Bana) regarding the team’s upcoming operation, “Red Wing.”
The team’s recon job is to confirm the location of an important Taliban target, Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami). A brief tactical session discusses the team’s overnight hike up a slippery, shale-covered mountain and the presence of many innocent Afghans near the village, variables causing Mike to observe this mission has “a lot of moving parts.”
Having ascended the mountain ahead of schedule, the team is able to confirm the target’s presence along with a much larger contingent than the 10 men anticipated by previous intelligence. Moving farther up the mountain to rest and maintain a line of sight to the village, the team is unaware they have chosen to dig in near a goat trail. Sure enough, their location is compromised by a trio of goatherders that includes a child and an old man.
The mountainous terrain (the movie was filmed in New Mexico) prevents the provided radio and satellite phones from contacting the SEAL’s command center and forces the team to make its own decision regarding the disposition of the herders. Arguments are made for tying the villagers up and even for “terminating the complication,” the latter strictly prohibited by the rules of engagement. Eventually, the team decides to let the goatherders go, and the consequences are devastating.
Believing they can reach the summit and radio for help before anyone’s wiser, the SEALs underestimate how quickly the teenaged goatherder can sound the alarm and the ongoing communications problems caused by the region’s many false summits.
What follows, as the team is tracked and attacked by dozens of Taliban warriors who wield surprisingly powerful weapons and possess intimate knowledge of the terrain, is both gut-wrenching and appalling.
The action, captured at close quarters, causes us to sweat every inch of the team tumbling down a rocky mountainside in slow motion and being shot multiple times. It’s remarkable to see the degree of damage a hardened body can sustain and still function when a highly trained mind is at the controls.
Without saying a word regarding national politics or international policy (neither of which is considered by these dedicated men), the agony of a close-up firefight makes one wonder who we think we are and what we are doing inserting ourselves into a centuries-old battle on the other side of Hell. The waste of such promising young men is difficult to comprehend. Then again, we can’t help but be proud knowing America is represented by such dedicated, unflappable soldiers. As revealed in the title, only one will survive, this owing to his training and to a cluster of marvelous people and miraculous events.
Unassuming in its depiction and admissions, “Lone Survivor” has done more to inform my perception of warfare than a thousand congressional debates.