December 24, 2013


After watching Battleship and Lone Survivor, I have no doubt that director Peter Berg has a deep and earnest respect for America’s military.  While one movie is a silly blockbuster and the other is based on a true-story tragedy, they both celebrate the honor and dedication of men and women in uniform.  Where I take issue with Berg is how he expresses his adoration of the troops.  In Battleship, a movie with aliens, spaceships, and explosive pegs, throwing in an appreciation of sailors is a nice sentiment.  In Lone Survivor, appreciation isn’t a sentiment; it’s a cause.  Berg’s desire to honor the Navy SEALs who lost their lives on a FUBAR mission is admirable, but the film’s heavy emphasis on action makes physical endurance appear more commendable than deeds and intentions.

In 2005, Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) were sent into Afghanistan on a covert mission to take out a Taliban leader.  The four men are hiding in the forest above the Taliban leader’s village when they’re discovered by three goat shepherds.  The SEALs capture the shepherds, but are then faced with what to do next.  If they let them go, they’ll run to the village, inform the Taliban soldiers, and the retaliation will likely be insurmountable.  They can also kill the shepherds outright and “neutralize” the situation (leaving them tied up is the same thing as killing them because they’ll either freeze or be eaten by wolves).  Because one of the shepherds is only a boy, they choose to let the group go.  Taliban soldiers descend on the SEALs location, a deadly shootout occurs, and Luttrell is the “lone survivor”.


As you can surmise from the title, Lone Survivor is a tragedy.  We’re going to get to know a group of guys who will be killed in action.  But the movie never lets us know them in any substantive way.  At the base, we see they all love their wives/girlfriends, and there’s a brotherhood among all the SEALs.  The lead actors have just enough chemistry to present a believable but indistinct bond.  It’s a general bond fostered by duty and mutual respect.  There’s nothing wrong with that kind of relationship, but it doesn’t give us much sense of the four main characters as individuals beyond Dietz being a little less seasoned and Axelson being a bit of a cold pragmatist.  They’re not blank canvases, but they’re far from detailed portraits.  Our feelings are for their profession, not the individual.

The cold open features medics trying to resuscitate Luttrell, and then the opening credits are played over real Navy SEAL training footage.  These two scenes encapsulate the rest of the picture. It’s about how Luttrell survived, and the toughness demanded of SEALs.  These are facts, but Berg can’t translate them into something emotionally resonant.  He’s creating a tribute to good men who did something noble and lost their lives as a result.  But his tribute consists largely of celebrating the fight rather than the fighters.


Beyond a few cursory details, we never learn much about Luttrell, Murphy, Dietz, Axelson, and their fellow SEALs beyond they’re the toughest sons of bitches to ever walk the Earth.  Berg doesn’t rush into the fight, but the most complex character scene is the debate on how to deal with the shepherds.  But once that conversation ends and the fight begins, the overriding sensation is dread and adrenaline.  They’re doomed, but they’re going out with guns blazing.

To his credit, Berg is in a difficult position of creating an action scene that’s not meant to titillate.  And yet his talent as an action director is always threatening to overshadow the gravity of the situation.  The centerpiece of the movie is a blaring symphony of bullets and blood.  Despite knowing the characters’ fate (although there was one moment I didn’t expect, and it made the story even more painful), Berg manages to wring out every ounce of tension he can from the gunfight.  I haven’t read Luttrell’s non-fiction book, but in the movie, the SEALs take an astonishing amount of punishment.  One bullet isn’t anywhere near enough to bring them down, and they literally rub dirt in their wounds in order to keep fighting.  The conviction and unrelenting brutality makes us feel every hit even if we don’t know much about the person taking the hit.


But he movie’s biggest weakness is also its greatest strength.  There’s nothing about Luttrell that made him special.  Luttrell survived but it wasn’t because he was “better” than his brothers.  He didn’t make a contrary decision.  He fought alongside his fellow SEALs, they died, and he didn’t.  Events played out to where he managed to escape and cross paths with a kind person from the village.   Luttrell survived and it’s a credit to the SEALs that anyone could when you consider the circumstances.  The flipside is that the film depicts him and the other members of SEAL Team 10 as an ideal:  honorable men beloved by family and friend.  As presented in Lone Survivor, they’re nothing more and nothing less.

There’s really no way to criticize a tribute and not sound callous.  The intentions are beyond reproach, and to point out any flaws in the tribute would appear to be a cold, unfeeling criticism.   Nevertheless, the depiction of the story undermines its importance.  Remove the fact that this story actually happened, and it’s just an action movie.  Lone Survivor is well made on a technical level, but it derives its strength from a firefight rather than a multi-dimensional portrayal of the men in that firefight.  The movie isn’t a hollow tribute, but it is a misguided one.

Rating: C


  • Bazarov

    Spot on, Matt.

  • brNdon

    A: Peter Berg is a hack!

    B: I’d like to know how negligent these SEALs were in real life that they were stumbled upon by shepards.

    • blkyank

      You might want to read “Victory Point” by Ed Darack. In it, you would read that “Operation Red Wings” was a Marine Corps operation that had the SEALs in a supporting role providing “Eyes and Ears” as recon for a Marine Battalion operating in the area. When intel came about that an HVT (High value target) was in the area the Marines wanted to send out a sniper team to take him out. The SEALs assumed the mission,but choose to alter the part of the Marines plan that would have required the team to walk
      over high mountains to its area of operation (AO) and instead they choose to be inserted by helicopter right onto the part of the mountain they would be working on,giving away their location.

      When the SEALs came under attack,the original rescue force was supposed to be a Marine Infantry Platoon with Army gunship support,but they were called off and replaced by a special ops task force of Army Rangers and Navy SEALs on Army special ops helicopters with no gun support leading to further tragic results.

      The book covers the over all operation from the Marines viewpoint and goes into the clash that sometimes occurs between the conventional “grunts” and the special operations “operator” communities that can lead to disaster.

    • MrTX

      You should read the book its based on and check out Bravo Two Zero, about an SAS mission in the first gulf war. There seems to be a murphys law of spec ops that goat herders will find a way to ruin any mission.

  • indy42

    This is one of my favorite films of the year, and easily one of the best (narrative) movies made about the War in Afghanistan.

  • Northern Star

    “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women”… THAT’S how you win a war!

    • Murdoch

      I hope you were being factitious. As a country, america has done that to many, MANY enemies. You want to know what happens after those women are done lamenting? They go home and raise their sons to avenge their fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers etc.
      That’s why 15-20 years after America thinks its defeated an enemy, it always comes back as something far more fierce and unrelenting. Maybe not in Japan or Germany, but how many times have we dealt with Iran? With Iraq? With Afghanistan? Those “wins” you speak of aren’t wins. They’re just pause buttons on the console that is warfare.

      • blkyank

        Well maybe that is your answer. America didn’t play around with Germany and Japan or North Korea. America didn’t even play around with its own citizens during the Civil War. Has the South risen again?

        Are Germans raising sons to avenge themselves on the USA or Russia for leveling their cities? Are the Japanese making plans to take back Okinawa by force? Or, are they raising their sons to be pacifists who should still give thanks any of them had grandfathers left to rebuild their homelands with American dollars.

        America never had a war with Iran and left Saddam in place in 91 because we wanted a regional block to Iran. The 2003 war was totally part of an imperial agenda that American bought after 911,and just like Vietnam was able to walk away from when we figured out it wasn’t really a threat to us.

        Afghanistan may have bled out the Soviet empire,but at the end of the day, when America leaves of its own accord a lot of people would have made a lot of money. That sucks for anybody who dies there,but America the country,will be just fine.

      • Murdoch

        OK, you spent 2 paragraphs on Germany and japan when i specifically named them as the exception.
        And we never had a war with Iran, we just placed the Shah against their people’s will, and years later, and despite years of sanctions, they’re still pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Saddam was also someone we wanted on our side as long as he played by our rules, but then went crazy, so had to be taken down . . . twice. And afghanistan? We trained the mujahadeen to fight Russia. Thank god that didn’t come back to bite us in the ass.
        Lastly, if by “america the country, will be fine” you mean that you, me and every other person not enlisted will never face danger, i’d say that’s ALWAYS been the case. But if you don’t think that our activity in Iraq, afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and even Syria isn’t going to come back and bite us further down the line, then i’d like an ounce of whatever you’re smoking.

      • blkyank

        The Iranians are pursuing nukes more for regional reasons against Israel then against America for the Shah and Bin Laden and the mujahadeen came after us because we kept troops on muslim lands (Saudi Arabia) after the 1991 Gulf War when I was enlisted as a US Marine. It had nothing to do with beating the Russians.So before you throw out that red herring,you may want to put down your crack pipe and ask.

        A case could be made that not be involved in those countries can bite us in the ass as much as being there.

        You and I don’t know. If you think not being involved is the only possible answer,maybe thats a sign that your just a key board warrior who never put his ass on the line for anything.

      • Murdoch

        And you’re one of billions of people who “claim” to have served every day on message boards in an attempt to show others that you know what you’re talking about . . . just like every discussion about abortion brings out at least a hundred women who have aborted their baby and are currently suffering from depression as a result, every discussion on gun rights brings out thousands of people who have personally warded off intruders with their family gun, and every discussion on minimum wage brings out thousands of “small business owners with a couple of employees” who are wondering whether they should just close their business down rather than pay for all their benefits and healthcare.

        Go eat a dick, blkyank. And please don’t bother telling me about what is or isn’t happening in the mid east. I hold a PhD in Mid Eastern Studies.

      • NMphotog

        It’s a quote from Conan. /Joke

      • Murdoch

        . . . is “THAT’S how you win a war!” in Conan as well?
        I’ve heard this quote many times. As for its vociferous support, i have reservations.

  • The Flobbit

    Black Hawk Down still puts this to shame.

  • gfhick420

    Your never out of the fight