With a title of “Lone Survivor,” the outcome of this film depicting an actual 2005 SEAL mission in Afghanistan isn’t in question. The lone survivor is Marcus Luttrell, and the film is based on his book of the same title. The four SEALs (played by Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, and Emile Hirsch) are briefly introduced amid some moments of camaraderie and levity with the rest of their unit before they are given their task: capture or kill a notorious Taliban leader.
The last film I saw depicting a real-life SEAL mission was the excellent Zero Dark Thirty, a dramatization of the killing of bin Laden. Those SEALs seemed almost robotic in their precision, and as we all know, the mission went off without a hitch. But here, the situation begins to degrade when the SEALs lose contact with their command. They then encounter an elderly Afghan farmer and two boys. The trio themselves poses no threat, but the danger is that they will report the Americans’ presence to the nearby Taliban. The SEALs debate whether to kill the Afghans or let them go, possibly risking their own lives in the process. Luttrell is firmly on the side of sparing the Afghans, and the others eventually acquiesce. I have not yet read Luttrell’s book, but I’m curious as to how closely this scene mirrored events as he wrote them. I thought the scene seemed quite awkward and overly long. Surely the possibility of encounters with civilians and how to handle them was discussed before this mission (or any mission, really.) Or maybe it was done as an attempt to humanize and distinguish the four men.
NOTE: I’ll go ahead and put a SPOILER ALERT here, even though the following actual events are known.
The decision to release the Afghans may have been the morally correct one, but it was disastrous and fatal for the SEALs. They are quickly swarmed by Taliban from every direction. Even though I knew what was coming, I still had the sense of, “These men are machines. They’ll survive somehow.” They do kill many Taliban, but there are too many overcome, and soon all the SEALs have their own gunshot wounds to torsos, arms, legs, hands, feet. It was brutal to watch, as every gunshot results in blood seeming to explode from their wounds. The SEALs eventually throw themselves off a cliff in an attempt to escape, and their f***ing radio still is not working, so there is no way to summon help. And the Taliban keep coming, until only Luttrell is left. He’s horribly wounded, but he manages to drag himself to a village where he is taken in by an Afghan family. He’s nursed back to health, and he manages to get word of his location to the U.S. military. They launch a rescue attempt at the same time that the Taliban invade the village to try to kill him. This scene was incredibly intense, and it seems that there is no way he could possibly survive, except, of course, we know that he does.
As an action film, Lone Survivor, supplies all the heart-racing goods. But as a film depicting an actual military tragedy, it misses the mark, especially when compared to a film like Black Hawk Down. Aside from possibly Luttrell, I never got a sense of who these men were, and as awful as it was to watch them getting gunned down, I was never given a reason to care about them as individuals.
A photograph was shown at the end of the film of the real Luttrell and the Afghan man who rescued him. I saw a recent interview with Luttrell, and he is friends with this man today. I felt that that one photograph told me more about the kind of man Luttrell is than the entire two hour film.