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.
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.