Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
The idea of a war movie is one of the least revolutionary plots out there. We've all seen the quintessential shots of soldiers roughhousing in the barracks, Marines gearing up for duty, or helping each other try to survive in their final moments. They're moving and exciting, yes, but probably won't make you jump off your couch and run down to the nearest cineplex. But Lone Survivor is different. Perhaps because it's based on one of the more devastating stories of our recent history, but also because it has an almost indescribable sense of heart.
The movie, which was made by Mark Wahlberg and Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg, follows the now infamous Marcus Luttrell and three of his fellow SEAL team members on a reconnaissance mission that is ill-fated to say the least. Luttrell, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny Dietz, Lieutenant Michael Murphy, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Axelson were sent into the mountains of Afghanistan to capture and kill a known Taliban leader, but an accidental run-in with a crew of goat herders resulted in a brutal ambush. By the time the day was done a total of 19 soldiers were dead — with the sole exception of Marcus Luttrell.
The telling of the tragedy is laden with contrasts. The movie's opening scenes show the obscene physicality of Marines in training, which can do nothing to prepare them for the terrifying moments of being alone on a mountain faced with impending death. The eery quiet of a village stakeout is abruptly shaken by one of the most disturbing firefights we've seen. Seriously, this cannot be overemphasized: This movie is not for the faint of heart or the weak-stomached. There's a reason the three fallen Navy SEALs all received posthumous medals of honor, and it lies in the fact that each one kept fighting despite receiving countless (literally countless) injuries. The mind reels at simply digesting the firefight on the big screen; to imagine that real men — who were barely old enough to be men — actually went through it is next to impossible.
While adrenaline junkies and war movie lovers will obviously appreciate this flick — think of it as Zero Dark Thirty on steroids, and without the satisfying ending — there's very little enjoyment to be had. Since you start the movie knowing the ending, it makes every interaction, every joke the Marines make, indisputably tragic. And, let's not discount the whole perspective thing. Watching the ending credits roll a slideshow of dead twenty-five-year-old marines posing with their wives and children who will never see them again sure makes you regret thinking that you've had a bad day.
But, there are also brilliantly uplifting moments of humanity; the Afghan villagers who risk their lives to rescue Luttrell from the Taliban, the Marine who sacrifices himself to open fire to make a call for rescue, the last words of soldiers who have literally given up everything while the rest of us sit in our temperature-controlled movie theaters checking our smartphones. Peter Berg certainly didn't mean to make the movie into a guilt trip, but it's not the worst thing that could have happened. Consider it a refresher course on, to put it less-than-lightly, the meaning of life.
Lone Survivor opens everywhere January 10.