As a celebration of courage in the face of impossible odds, “Lone Survivor” certainly gets the job done in a bare-bones sort of way.
It would have been so much more powerful, though, if it also had given us the chance to know more about the men it celebrates.
Based on a memoir by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, “Lone Survivor” is the story of a disastrous 2005 mission in Afghanistan, in which Luttrell and three others SEALs were ordered to locate Taliban leader Ahmad Shah in advance of a larger strike force. Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and the other members of the team (Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster) quickly locate Shah in a remote village, but the mission is compromised when they are discovered by goat herders. Faced with the choice of killing them, tying them up (and leaving them to freeze of be eaten by wolves) or releasing them, they decide to set them free — and are almost immediately surrounded by 200 of Shah’s Taliban fighters.
It’s best not to wonder why they simply didn’t retreat with the prisoners and release them after calling in an air rescue — this is probably one of those cases when the complications of reality slip through the cracks of “based on a true story.” Besides, there’s not much time to think about that, or anything else, as soon as the Taliban soldiers show up and the epic, utterly hopeless, half-hour firefight begins.
Make no mistake, that spectacular battle is what “Lone Survivor” the movie is all about, as the four soldiers make a heroic, and extremely punishing, stand against impossible odds, each of them repeatedly wounded and the whole team taking bone-breaking tumbles down a craggy mountain side. Director Peter Berg (“Battleship,” “Hancock,” “The Kingdom”) knows what he’s doing when it comes to staging action scenes and this one’s an adrenaline-pumper for sure. But a little less combat and a little more characterization could have provided much greater dramatic impact.
Berg (who also adapted the screenplay) seems much more interested in the idea of what it takes to be a SEAL than the character of the four individuals on screen. After a strange documentary-like opening segment that shows us SEAL training at its most grueling, he takes a little time to introduce us Luttrell and company at Bagram Air Force Base, but only to the extent of establishing their relationships with girlfriends at home and showing their good-natured hazing of a new arrival. Beyond that, with their near-identical beards and jungle fatigues, it’s actually hard to tell them apart at times.
That’s deep psychological revelation, though, compared to the treatment of the Taliban fighters, who are quickly established as anonymous, two-dimensional villains — as easily picked off as zombies in a point-and-shoot video game.
The SEALS are much harder to kill though, of course, and when they die, they die heroically, or at least ultra-dramatically, complete with soul-stirring music on the soundtrack. It’s just a shame there’s more emphasis on how they died than who they were.