Brutal, Heartfelt “Lone Survivor”

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I’ve had the privilege of interviewing soldiers who served at Iwo Jima. They told tales of a naval bombardment that made them feel like the world was shattering itself into pieces. I have a friend who served as a medic in Iraq, and suffers blackouts and PTSD from “having my hands in guts up to my elbows day after day.” I spoke to a marine who served as a guard in Iraq. He told me about having to stay on his side of an invisible ethical boundary, witnessing but being unable to intervene even when children were abused in front of him, lest he start an international incident. What those who face war as combatants must undergo defies the imagination.

We can imagine horrors, we can even imagine facing our own deaths. We can imagine a gunfight. We can begin to imagine explosions, being trapped, seeing a friend violently die, being wounded. We can imagine those things. What those of us who have not been in or around combat cannot imagine are the ethical quandaries faced, the second-guessing of split-second decisions, the evolution one’s mind takes just to survive and stay sane in a reality encompassing all of this for years on end.

Lone Survivor is a story about men who have undergone that evolution. It follows Operation Red Wings, a 2005 counter-insurgency operation in Afghanistan. It’s been compared to Saving Private Ryan, which is inaccurate. While both are superb films, you’ll find no Tom Hanks monologue about what these men are fighting for. The battle at the film’s center is not artistically inclined. The action isn’t about bullets or explosions, tactics or heroics. It contains these things, yes, but combat here is presented as the whittling down of men, piece by piece. One man shoots, another gets shot, until one of them is dead. Repeat. The cinematic sheen we’re so used to seeing accompany war violence, that makes it digestible and popcorn-friendly, has been largely removed.

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Even before this, during their free time, the Navy SEAL team we’ll later see in action talks about an upcoming wedding, whether one can afford a horse for his fiancee, and what color one’s wife is repainting the house. They peer over breakfast at a palette of rose tints and disagree with her choice. They talk about finding a weekend to clear brush for a stables when they get home. They don’t act like they’re in a movie, as if they have dramatic fates, or like any of them is a metaphor for something greater. They act like people taking a load off from a hard job.

The film boasts an excellent cast – Mark Wahlberg (Shooter), Taylor Kitsch (John Carter), Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild), and Ben Foster (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) play the SEAL team inserted into the mountains of Afghanistan in order to kill a Taliban leader. If you’ve read the title of the film, you know things don’t go well. Foster’s turn as Matt “Axe” Axelson is particularly memorable.

Lone Survivor is very good, but it is not a masterpiece of storytelling. Another twenty minutes of running time to expand on later moments would have been welcome. It is, however, a masterpiece of heart. It’s directed by Peter Berg, who also helmed Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom. Like those, Lone Survivor exudes emotion. Everything it feels is on that screen. Rather than communicating the geography of a battle, an approach I usually champion, Berg chooses to stay close to his actors. He focuses on the experience of the fight instead of its procedure. It’s a choice that makes the emotion feel quick and organic rather than heavy and scripted.

At the end of these kinds of war films, before the credits roll, photos are shown of the real-life soldiers whom you’ve watched actors portray for the past two hours. Inevitably, a few audience members get up to beat the crowd to the parking lot. Mine was a packed house. There were multiple photos and home videos for all 19 men who died in Operation Red Wings. Not a soul rose to leave. Not a single soul. And, at the end, I joined the loudest round of applause I’ve heard for a movie in years. Lone Survivor is rated R for strong violence and language.

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