(Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, Eric Bana, et al / R / 121 mins)
Overview: 'LONE SURVIVOR', starring Mark Wahlberg, tells the story of four Navy SEALs on an ill-fated covert mission to neutralize a high-level Taliban operative who are ambushed by enemy forces in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan.
Verdict: You can tell from the title that “Lone Survivor” is not messing around. Spoiler sensitivity is for sissies and dilettantes: Real men face the inevitable with stoical resolve. So when the movie sends four guys on a dangerous mission, you can be reasonably certain that only one of them is coming back, and you already know (as soon as the credits are over) that it will be the one played by Mark Wahlberg.
The setting is Afghanistan in 2005, where we first meet a bunch of Navy SEALs enjoying the camaraderie of downtime between operations. Mr. Berg, who wrote the screenplay, loves military jargon and rough, manly humor, and likes to shoot scenes that have a rough-edged, naturalistic feel, with the dialogue mixed low so you have to sit up in your seat to catch what’s being said. None of it is especially momentous: jokes about wives and girlfriends back home; teasing a new guy (Alexander Ludwig); telling old war stories. The point is that these professional fighters take themselves seriously only when it’s absolutely necessary.
Soon enough, it is. The commanding officer (Eric Bana) gives a briefing and Luttrell, along with Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Axe Axelson (Ben Foster) and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) are deposited by helicopter on a mountainside. Their target, a Taliban commander, is believed to be in the village below, and they hunker down in the trees waiting for engagement.
“I think this op is cursed,” Axelson says, predictably and prophetically, and before the SEALs face physical danger they encounter a moral quandary. Discovered by a group of goatherds, including an elderly man and a young boy, they face an unpleasant set of choices, enumerated by Murphy and debated by the others. They can let the Afghans go, tie them up, or “terminate the complication,” options that are discussed clearly and respectfully before the mission’s leader renders his decision.
Mr. Berg focuses on providing a plausible, in-the-moment account of what happened, rather than reflecting on its larger meanings or political implications. But the structure of the story supplies some of that as the Western themes come to the surface. Here is a small band of white Americans in hostile territory, at once strategic overlords — with more firepower and better technology than their enemies could dream of mustering — and tactical underdogs. The local population is divided into enemies and allies, though their ongoing tragedy exists mostly off screen.
The action on screen is bloody, intense and precise. Luttrell and his men fight bravely and fall hard against the rocks, their faces scraped and gashed by the impact. Their talk is relentlessly positive and dryly fatalistic at the same time. “We good?” “Yeah, we’re good,” is a typical exchange, repeated until it becomes more a matter of protest than of reassurance.