The sensation of being pinned down and shot apart is so harrowingly conveyed by Peter Berg’s fact-based war movie Lone Survivor that one almost forgives the movie’s failure to be quite as persuasive in almost every other respect. This is a contemporary war-is-hell account in which hell burns so intensely that it scorches the firewalls of the mundane world around it. But it doesn’t burn them down.
On June 28, 2005, four American Navy Seals were sent on a mission in Afghanistan to locate and, if feasible, kill the heavily guarded Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. When their precarious mountainside location was stumbled upon by goat herders, the men were quickly surrounded and attacked by the enemy. The ensuing skirmish was brutal: The Seals were largely exposed on an almost vertical mountain slope, their enemy’s numbers and ammunition were seemingly unlimited and communicating with base operations was impossible. Only one, Marcus Luttrell – played with grim, low key conviction by Mark Wahlberg – would live to tell the tale, write the book and share the nightmare.
It has, of course, components of the sturdiest American stories of them all: bravery under fire, facing impossible odds, standing proud even in the face of slaughter. But part of it is also a cliché, a myth as old as the Alamo, and the true test of that myth is how it holds up against the cold scrutiny of truth and experience. And it’s a myth that writer-director Berg, for all the intimacy with which he wishes to acquaint us with the sensation of being shot to bits, doesn’t even try to test.
As played by the bearded quartet of Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, the Seals are standard-issue American boys, unwavering in their pride of service, preoccupied with wives and family back home, and almost entirely incurious about why they’re in this horrible predicament in the first place. No questions are asked about the larger cause of this war or the wisdom of its execution, and even the movie’s sole passage of uncomfortable self-reflection, when a tense discussion transpires about whether to kill or free the hostages, is silenced and rendered moot once the shooting starts.
When it does, however, the mountain combat is rendered with such frightening force, immediacy and ferocity that nothing matters other than the second-by-second struggle to stay alive. And what better definition of damnation is there than that: an eternity of slow-drip fear in the here and now. But even hell has a context, so it’s a pity that Lone Survivor ignores it. This hell, like all of them on Earth, had its enablers, and the grim fact is that they usually survive as well.