With a great story, told in a highly suspenseful manner, this film also has fine acting and beautiful cinematography. "Lone Survivor" tells the story of a great power's lost war in Afghanistan through the tale of one four-person patrol. While the movie's title telegraphs its outcome, there is still plenty of suspense. How Mark Wahlberg's character will be rescued is as unexpected as it is exciting. When I saw the movie, the theater was packed full on a warm, sunny weekend afternoon. As the closing credits rolled, many in the theater applauded. Who says Americans aren't paying attention to the war? I'm certain people were not cheering for the deaths of the patrol's other three members, but rather for its classic, cavalry-to-the-rescue ending.
"Lone Survivor" is based on a true story. The book of the same name was written by Marcus Luttrell, one of the members of the doomed patrol. It could have been a story from the British defeat in Afghanistan more than a century earlier. Or a story from the Soviet Union's humiliation at Afghan hands more than two decades ago. This time, US Navy SEALs are patrolling in the mountains to find a Taliban leader. The film shows scenes from their training and preparations for the patrol, depicting the emphasis on physical endurance and skill with weapons. Equally important, many scenes show the close relationships among the men that will explain why they fight so hard to protect one another. Yet the film does not shrink from noting their ignorance of the language, culture, and customs of the country in which they are fighting.
The movie is at its best in the action sequences showing the four soldiers' efforts to escape from the much larger force that discovers and surrounds them. While the outcome of this struggle is a foregone conclusion, the heroic efforts of the soldiers on both sides of the fight is dramatically illustrated. Denied a miracle, perhaps my audience was cheering for even a shred of redemption.
The long-ago foot soldier's voice in my head kept asking, why are they making so many of the same mistakes we made in Vietnam forty years earlier? It was clear from the list of US military units involved in the making of "Lone Survivor" that the Pentagon had placed its stamp of approval on the film. In doing so, perhaps they wished to call attention to how difficult it is for a foreign force to succeed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, or any other similar environment.
None of the four patrol members spoke even a handful of phrases in the local language. At several key points this deficiency proves critical. We see the patrol's dependence on maintaining communications with their back-up and extraction teams, yet when they lose radio and satellite-phone contact, they continue the patrol. The movie shows us how their limited map-reading skills doom the patrol when they fail to note that their isolated position lacks an escape route. And we are treated to several examples of the military bureaucracy's failure to provide the tools that will be needed to rescue the patrol.
One of the most compelling scenes in the movie occurs when the patrol is discovered by three Afghan goat-herders -- an old man, a young man, and a small boy. Realizing that their mission has been fatally comprised, the four Americans debate their obligations toward the three unarmed civilians: should they hold, release, or kill the goat-herders? It is Mark Wahlberg's character who insists on following the rules of war they have been taught, yet it is in following these rules that that they sign the death warrants of three patrol members.
Thoroughly modern in its insistence that not all of the patrol members can be saved, "Lone Survivor" nonetheless provides what we ask for in action films -- a full measure of heroic behavior on the part of all of the main characters.