Movie Review: Lone Survivor (2013)
“Lone Survivor,” the movie, starring Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell, is based upon Luttrell’s book, “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.” It’s a good title for a book but a bad one for a movie.
If you’ve seen the trailer you know four Navy SEALS come across three goat herders in the enemy mountains of Afghanistan and let them go (crossing their fingers) rather than kill them. Then they’re pursued by the Taliban up and down those mountains. Mostly down. It’s the anti-My Lai story. Our men do the right thing and die as a result.
But with that background, and that title, what don’t we know going in? Which one survives? One assumes it’s Wahlberg, even without knowing he plays Luttrell, since he’s the star. So what don’t we know?
We don’t know this: the deus ex machina. For a moment, three-quarters through the movie, it looks like it’s going to be the traditional one: the U.S. military; the cavalry.
Nope. The deus ex machina is the most intriguing thing about “Lone Survivor.” It’s also the most glossed-over. It’s as if the movie doesn’t realize the story it has.
I thought it was brutal during the opening credits, when we got real-life footage of Navy SEALS during their insane training—e.g.: chained and dropped in pools so they learn to suffocate without panicking—but that’s merely to show us who these men are, and why they’ll cope with the brutality to come. They’ve been trained for it. They’ve been trained to keep going.
It begins, as so many of our stories do these days, at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, where we meet our four young men. They wake up. They give each other shit. Two of them race around the airbase in shorts and tennis shoes but the skinny one, Danny (Emile Hirsch), loses in the end to the buffer one, Mike (Taylor Kitsch), who is something of a legend. They eat breakfast and give shit to the new guy, Shane (Alexander Ludwig), who is buff and beardless and wants to fit in. They talk about their wives or girls back home. One girl wants an Arabian horse but the dude keeps calling it an Arabic horse. Marcus is from Texas. Mike is respected.
Could we have learned more about these guys early on? Surely there was more to know. Instead, this shorthand. They’re guys in a beer commercial now.
Then off they go on a mission. Something about beers: Corona, Miller, Heineken. Something about Rick James. Something about Spartan Zero One.
Eventually we realize, “Oh, they’re Spartan Zero One, the beers are location points on the way to the target, who is Rick James, a.k.a. “Superfreak,” a.k.a. Shah (Yousef Azami), the dark-eyed Taliban leader who’s been assassinating U.S. Marines. They’re supposed to get in, kill him, get out.
They spot him, too. High up on the hill above their target, they have him in their sites. But they move to higher ground. Then the goat herders come: an old man, a boy, an angry teen.
Matt (Ben Foster, steely-eyed) counsels killing them. He nods to his brothers. “I care about you, I care about you, I care about you,” he says. “I don’t care about them.” Marcus is against it. It’s against the rules of engagement, he says. If it winds up on CNN they’re fucked, he says. Mike, the leader, follows Marcus’ logic and lets the goatherders go. But as the men climb to higher ground, the mission compromised, they lose communication with Bagram. Meanwhile, the angry teen bounds down the mountain like he’s a parkour expert. Our men are barely situated up top before they’re surrounded; before the firefight begins.
We know we lose three, right? So how many do they lose? That’s how I kept interested during all the fighting. I counted the kill shots. I got up to 23. Still the Taliban keep coming. There’s no end to them. And our guys keep getting hit, too, and wounded, and escaping by basically falling down the mountain, out of control, and smashing into trees and rocks. It is, as I’ve said, brutal. But they keep going. Until they can’t go on anymore. One by one, bloodied beyond recognition, they stop moving.
Until there’s one left.
So how is Marcus saved?
For a moment it looks like other SEALS at Bagram will save him. They show up in a Chinook helicopter. But the Taliban has an RPG and down goes the helicopter in a burst of flame. So much for my 23-3 tally. And Marcus is on his own again.
He crawls to a safe spot and rests; then he collapses into a pool of water. When he looks up, three Afghanis are standing there. They help him but he doesn’t trust them. They drag him to their village and feed him. Still he doesn’t trust them. But they go out of their way to save him. This is particularly true of Mohammad Gulab (Ali Suliman), the village leader. The Taliban come into their village and are told to leave. The Taliban return, and there’s a firefight, and the right-hand man of the Shah is killed in hand-to-hand combat by Gulab. It all feels like bullshit but most of it isn’t. “Why are you doing this for me?” Marcus keeps asking. Right. Exactly. That’s what we want to know.
We find out in an afterword. Gulab was simply following a code of honor called Pashtunwali. Its first principle is melmastia: “showing hospitality and profound respect to all visitors, regardless of race, religion, national affiliation or economic status.” Its second principle is nanawatai: “...protection given to a person against his or her enemies.” The third is justice, the fourth bravery. That’s why.
The movie ends with Luttrell’s rescue but the story continued for Gulab. From MensJournal.com:
Shortly after Luttrell was airlifted to safety by Green Berets in 2005, Gulab and his family became top Taliban targets. “They have a bounty on his head,” Luttrell says. “He’s been shot, his car’s been blown up, and his house has been burned down.” Gulab soon reached out to Luttrell, who arranged for the Afghan to visit him on his ranch northwest of Houston. ... Luttrell and Berg knew the film would bring renewed Taliban scrutiny upon Gulab and are currently working on obtaining U.S. visas for the Afghan and his family. “I knew we needed to get him and his family out of Afghanistan and offer asylum if he wants it,” Berg says. “But Gulab is a proud fighter. His attitude is, ‘I sleep with two AKs; if they want to come, they know where I am.’”
You know what the above sounds like to me? A movie. A better movie than this one. Unfortunately it’s about someone who doesn’t even speak English. Hollywood doesn’t tell those tales often.
At the end of “Lone Survivor,” in voiceover, we hear the following from Luttrell:
I died up on that mountain. There is no question a part of me will forever be up on that mountain, dead as my brothers died. But there is a part of me that lived. Because of my brothers, because of them, I am still alive ...
Well, one other guy helped.