Review: Americans Can Take Pride in Tough, Gripping ‘Lone Survivor’

Nothing quite encapsulates America’s ambiguity, discomfort, and pride in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the true stories of soldiers home from the field.

Lone Survivor, a story of a factual anti-Taliban mission gone wrong in the hills of Afghanistan, is based on the memoir of the same name. It is gripping and powerful, although hard to watch, and can stand alongside powerful movies like Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker, and the Somali mission movie Blackhawk Down.

As the spearhead of a larger mission to take out a top Taliban commander, the military drops four Navy SEALs into a rugged, rural, mountainous part of Afghanistan: Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg, who also produced the film), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster).

They four warriors are hidden on a deserted mountainside waiting for the next step in their exquisitely planned mission when unpredictable Afghanistan strikes. A band of goat herders stumble on their hiding place.

The highly trained SEALs have no problem taking the three goat herders into custody, but the question of what to do with them is harder. The old man and young boy are clearly no immediate threat, but the teenage boy seethes with a rage that needs no translation. They know without speaking the language that his freedom would mean their exposure to the Taliban militia in the valley below.

With communication gear on the blink and no means to detain the herders, they must decide what to do.

What would you do?

As an American, as a soldier, as a man or woman who must answer to your own conscience?

Their decision, as Americans, as soldiers, and as men who must answer to their own consciences, to release the group unleashes a hornet-swarm of Taliban on them, leading to disastrous results.

The bulk of the film follows the brave, brutal, and relentless battle that ensues as the superiorly trained and outfitted SEALs fend off seemingly limitless mountain warriors and wait for rescue. The stakes are desperate, the acts of courage bold, the blood and gore difficult to watch. Director Peter Berg does not turn away from the minute-by-minute pain these characters experience, from the early loss of a finger to a bullet to the mental confusion of a wounded man who has taken blows to the head. The camera lingers, it wants us to see, to feel, to know what these men have sacrificed for us.

This strong, bloody violence and salty language of soldiers gives the film an R rating. There is no sexuality. It is intense. It is not appropriate for children younger than teens and you should think twice about whether your teen is ready to be exposed to this level of reality.

The resolution of the film is, in part, in the title. However, the power of the film is in that it makes you feel each American death keenly, as well as the pain, grit, and strength of perseverance that makes each man sell his life dearly for his brothers in arms, for his country, and for the unknown Afghan people the Taliban oppress.

The ending has a true-life twist which will surprise the audience as much as the soldier to whom it happens and will help us appreciate the murky and complicated war in which we still find ourselves.

If you ponder the events in this film, the war is not as clear cut as the anti-war, “anti-imperialist” leftists stateside would like it to be.

The film, like anyone with a basic understanding of that region, makes a clear distinction between the brutal Taliban and the Afghan citizenry. The extreme fringe of Islamicism is a scary thing, a force that threatens its own countrymen even more than it threatens the West.

With the latest news that Al-Queda has taken Falujah and controls more territory than ever, the film takes on a completely gut-wrenching tone.

What was it all for?

 

Some critics, those who have never seen a battlefield (nor has this critic) or known a veteran (this critic knows many), will criticize this movie for being too patriotic, too gung-ho. They are wrong. For one thing, the advertisements make it seem more military-recruitment video than it actually is.

But for another, it’s easy to be cynical when one stays in their urban, bluestate, left of center echo chamber repeating that the war is a mistake, pointless, a product of America’s greedy and arrogant bullying.

But the soldiers I know chose to go to this remote part of the world because they believed in the mission, because they believed in America as a force for good and because they believed holding back an evil like totalitarian Islamicism was a valuable goal.

Perhaps that belief has been challenged. Time will tell.

However, this movie reminds us that even self-doubting and self-critical as we are, there is still a difference between us and the extreme, totalitarian forces we fight.

We are Americans. We do not tolerate or condone killing of non-combatants. Yes, I am aware there are troubling instances where we have failed our own values. The prosecutions of and outrage about such events supports my point.

The Taliban doesn’t hesitate.

It is a good thing to see our soldiers, representing our country who, when the stakes could not be higher, chose to uphold the values America holds dear at devastating risk to themselves.

This is something of which we can be proud.

If you can stand the blood, go see this movie.

 

About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a lead critic and editor of entertainment at Patheos. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey

  • TheWhiteLilyBlog

    “We are Americans. We do not tolerate or condone killing of non-combatants. ” If this is the subtext in this film, it’s erroneous. We openly and without qualms bombed non-combatants in WWII–remember that first use of atomic bombs?–and we kill non-combatants right now. These men could have killed these particular non-combatants under military ethics. Now, perhaps in practice (hopefully some vets will comment) this clarity will have been muddied by our current moral confusion, which gives free rein to what should be controlled and controls behaviors we have every right to, even in the military, which includes killing anyone who have the capacity to threaten the soldier’s life or the mission’s success. If that is the case, maybe it explains the troubling undertones of this film mentioned by many critics, not about the deaths of soldiers, for that is not ‘troubling’ even while it is unbearably sad, but about the reason for the deaths. It makes one wonder, is this war porn and little else?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

      You’re right of course that there are times when it’s impossible to avoid killing non-combatants and other times when we’ve made the horrible yet sometimes necessary decision to kill civilians.

      Those are grave exceptions. I think our general value is that we do not do it because it is against our value system. Sometimes it’s the lesser of two evils, and I would not like to have that decision in my lap, but our value is to avoid it at great cost to ourselves.

      The Taliban, like others before them…Soviets, Nazis, Mongols, Vikings, and on and on, do it as a matter of course, without a whim. As a matter of policy. Sometimes for the fun of it.

      There is a difference. A qualitative difference.

      • TheWhiteLilyBlog

        I do agree with you on so many points. It can be morally wrong to kill civilians (it can be morally wrong not to), and it is always a terrible thing, always. But I think you got diverted. I believe the original point in this essay is that the movie is premised on the American belief that it is ALWAYS wrong, when in fact killing civilians is an American practice, and we have not ever formally repudiated our right, even our obligation to do so as required, and so what is this poster talking about, except an innocence he wishes we had, etc. In fact, Rebeca, when you began to name those bad guys, the nazis, the soviets, et alles, who have killed non-combatants without discrimination, I was puzzled that you left the United States out of the lineup. Because it was our trademark, and if we weren’t pimping half the known world, they would call us out on it, that our egalitarian yet highly profitable protestant philosophy allowed us the indiscriminate slaughter of the native owners of this blood-cursed land. Even for fun. And that’s to say nothing of slavery, and to say nothing of the modern slavery, which you may feel you escaped whereas I’m pretty sure I can prove to you that you are only a better payed, a more comfortable slave. I wish it weren’t so, but if wishes were horses, we’d be riding high.

  • Devonshade

    I don’t question war to the extent that I question Afghanistan and Iraq, especially when the reasons and implications for the nations involved are very clear and the citizenry of both nations have a chance to understand what is going on. Afghanistan and Iraq never came close. They were wars made up for big business to make profit. Really disgusting to see hollywood getting its share too. I don’t buy the lame guilt trip this author is trying to lay on the people who question war.

    • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

      Gen Smedley Butler’s “War Is A Racket” still rings true in these wars of American Corporate Empire.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

        Seriously, to both of you, I wish it were so simple. War=racket. Done.

        Never have to think or wade through murky waters. Never have to wrestle with evil and our role in resisting it. It’s there, ready labeled. War is evil. Done. Ok. La, la, la, la, can’t hear you, Hitler or Stalin or Idi Amin or Saddam. Keep on doing what you want because to fight you would be evil. It’s a racket.

        There is nothing different between “it’s made up for business” and the knee-jerk reaction on the right that “country is always right.” Just a way to stop thinking about it and move on to the next distraction.

        Glad you guys aren’t making the decisions for our country. Of course, in a bigger sense, you are. And that is discouraging to me.

        • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

          Oh we are thinking about it. We think that since you are making the decisions we have the civilians killed by atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, the civilians killed by drones in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the civilians poisoned and born deformed from uranium weapons in Iraq, the children killed by cluster bomblets lying on the ground and uncollected land mines from Vietnam to Iraq, etc., etc.ad nauseum, ad terrorism.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

      Hold on, I thought it was for oil. That’s why our gas prices are so much lower than they were at the beginning of the war….oh…wait.

  • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

    LOL! If this film stands alongside the propaganda films “like Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker, and the Somali mission movie Blackhawk Down” then it can’t be good. American Imperialism based on the false concept of American Exceptionalism should not be confused with patriotism. A film about four “bad guys” invading a nation to kill the citizens of that nation engaged in their own civil war and who did not attack America is not something to be proud of..

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

      Sigh.

      America is exceptional. Ask the many Pakistani and Iraqi people who have come here seeking freedom and a better life. I hope that their homelands become places with equal opportunity.

      And I’m proud of our troops. Killing Taliban? I’m never happy about the loss of human life, but if any were on the deserving side, it’s the Taliban.

  • Denis Morgan

    I must be a leftist because I take no pride in the Iraq War. Yes, It made things worse – for Christians.

    “In Saddam’s time, Christians could worship freely, and as long as you avoided politics you could survive,” said Mr Esha. “But since the war we have been attacked, robbed, raped and forced out of both Doura and the country.”

    Who said that, some lying leftist?. No, it was Archdeacon Temathius Esha, the the last remaining Christian priest in the Baghdad suburb of Doura.

    And why would he say that. The media reports Christian persecution in Egypt and Syria, but says nothing about the disaster Iraq. I wonder why?

    Iraq’s battle to save its Christian souls: ‘Christians are finished here’ Ten years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Christians have dwindled from more than a million to as little as 200,000. UK Telegraph.

    Shame on you.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

      First of all, this is Afghanistan, not Iraq.

      But let’s take the wars in the middle east as a whole if you like.

      I am extremely concerned about the situation of Christians in the Middle East. Persecution is on the rise there, absolutely. It’s a product of the extreme Islamism that caused 9/11 and is infecting the region. We did not cause it. It is the responsibility of the people who allow and encourage it to be so powerful. I believe it is worth fighting through diplomacy, through encouraging reform in the region, and through force if necessary.

      Secondly, I have a huge problem with your only standard of measurement being the fate of Christians in Iraq. That is one component of an incredibly complex situation, and a very troubling one. But I doubt the innocents being murdered and raped under the Saddam regime would like to hear they didn’t matter because they weren’t Christian.

      I am extremely aware of Canon White, the Bishop of Baghdad, and other Christians throughout the region, as well as the human rights of non-Christians, especially women. It is dark, so dark right now.

      But I believe that, as far as Earthly powers go, America and the West, with our ideals of freedom, are the light.

      So, no shame on me. Go wag your finger somewhere else.


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