The battle scene that takes up much of the film’s running time is a Hieronymus Bosch style glimpse into the very heart of battle. Grisly and gory, it is about pushing the limits of endurance as far as possible.
But “Lone Survivor” isn’t simply a shoot ‘em up.
Between the bullets is a complex story about morality and the men who put themselves in harm’s way.
The film is based on the real-life SEAL Team 10’s Operation Red Wings, a failed 2005—the movie’s title in itself is a spoiler—War in Afghanistan mission to locate, capture (or eliminate) Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami).
The carefully planned operation goes wrong almost as soon as the team—SO2 Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), LT Michael P. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), SO2 Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and SO2 Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster)—touch ground in the Kush Mountains. Their job is hindered by faulty a communication radio, but the mission is undone when they are discovered by an older man and two boys.
The commandoes make the decision to let the four unarmed shepherds go, but their kindness comes back to haunt them when shortly afterwards a Taliban army descends on their position and they are hopelessly outnumbered.
There’s no gunfire in the first hour of “Lone Survivor.” The time is spent getting to know the characters, their situation and absorbing the gravity of the mission at hand. Then, sixty minutes in, it turns into a bullet ballet. But it is those opening minutes that make the payoff of the last hour so potent.
Without getting to know the brotherhood the characters share we won’t buy in later on when their bond and training are the only things that will decide their fate.
The acting is uniformly good. Walhberg is understated but undeniably powerful as the Luttrell. His character is the glue that holds the movie together, and he delivers.
As the sharp-tongued and direct Axelson Ben Foster is, well, Ben Foster. He’s one of the best actors working today and his portrayal is passionate, patriotic but grounded in truth. It takes some doing to deliver a line like, “Did they really shoot me in the ******* head?” with any measure of believability, but Foster manages.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is Taylor Kitsch. He had a bad couple of years after becoming a small screen star on “Friday Night Lights.” The promise of a big screen career seemed to evaporate in the trifecta of failure—big budget flops “John Carter,” “Battleship,” “Savages”—but here he finds his groove and reminds us of the charisma that made him a name in the first place.
“Lone Survivor” is a visceral experience. Not since “Saving Private Ryan” has a battle scene been so effectively rendered but at its core it isn’t a propaganda film or a slice of patriotism; instead it’s a stark reminder of the camaraderie of soldiers in the field.