NEW YORK: With all the talk about fact-based films and how accurate they should or shouldn’t be, it’s worth noting that some stories are best brought to screen as simply as possible. This is especially true with a film like “Lone Survivor,” Peter Berg’s expertly rendered account of a disastrous 2005 military operation in Afghanistan. War is messy, and politics are messy, but Berg has wisely chosen to focus squarely on the action, presented as straightforwardly as possible.
He’s executed that with admirable skill, down to using autopsy reports to get the number of wounds a soldier suffered. “Lone Survivor” doesn’t have the sweep of a movie like Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Yet the action scenes – a protracted, harrowing firefight – feel as realistic as any we’ve seen on the screen recently.
For those unfamiliar with the story – which Berg also penned, based on the memoir by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell – the firefight took place on June 28, 2005 in the craggy mountains of Afghanistan’s Kunar province.
As part of Operation Red Wings, Luttrell and three fellow SEALs were positioned on a hillside, tracking a Taliban commander in the village below, when they suddenly encountered a few local shepherds.
Their agonized decision on what to do with those shepherds, one of them a teenager, led to a string of events that ultimately resulted in 19 American deaths.
The title “Lone Survivor” and the fact that Luttrell is played by the movie’s star (Mark Wahlberg) tells you much of what’s going to happen from the get-go. But that doesn’t hurt the film’s immediacy and power.
Berg opens with footage of real Navy SEAL training and the extremes it reaches. This may be overly worshipful, but for those who don’t know a lot about the SEALS, it may also be helpful and effective.
We’re also given a sense of the lighthearted camaraderie at the military base between operations, as the men joke about wives and girlfriends back home, or compete in races.
All lightness disappears suddenly. Soon, Luttrell is in the mountains with comrades Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster). All seems to be going well until the moment they encounter the villagers. The ensuing debate is a painful one. Do they let them go and risk certain discovery? Or do they “terminate” the problem?
The men also touch on a heavier question: what connection, in a deeper sense, do these shepherds have with the enemy?
A decision comes, and then the battle, with the men literally falling down the mountainside, smashing repeatedly into rocks, their bodies gashed and broken. A rescue effort goes catastrophically badly. Then comes the amazing end to the story: How, and with whose help, Luttrell manages to survive to tell his tale.
At the end, we see photos of the actual casualties of Operation Red Wings. It does not seem gratuitous, and no further explanation or exposition is given, or needed. Again, the best thing about Berg’s work here is its simplicity.