‘Lone Survivor’ Review – Joe Morgenstern (WSJ)

The Wall Street Journal (December 24, 2013)

Peter Berg’s screen version of Marcus Luttrell’s book is remarkably good at dramatizing the notorious 2005 Navy SEAL operation that went horrifically bad. The power of this production isn’t evident in the preface, a standard-brand account of the rigors of SEAL training. And familiar themes of combat movies make up most of the operation’s initial phase—cocky banter, macho preening, talk of wives and girlfriends back home. The first hint of what’s to come is someone’s casually ominous observation about the complexity of the joint military planning: “A lot of moving parts.”

The parts were set in motion for Operation Red Wings, a covert mission intended to kill or capture a Taliban commander in northern Afghanistan. A four-man team of SEALs was ambushed by Taliban fighters, and the book’s author, then the team medic, was the lone survivor of a debacle that also took the lives of 16 men aboard a rescue helicopter shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. Mr. Luttrell, now retired, is played by Mark Wahlberg; the other team members are played by Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster. All four performances are first-rate, and the action is staged with shattering intensity.

Literally and graphically shattering. The film is a celebration of courage, and the brotherhood of warriors facing unfathomable danger in the service of their country. These, too, are familiar themes, but they take on new meaning in “Lone Survivor.” The SEALs aren’t just shot at in a merciless firefight. They are shot, time and again. They are almost aerated by Taliban bullets, and they fight on. Their training has turned them into fighting machines, and their equipment employs technologies undreamed of in earlier wars. Yet their high-tech edge is blunted by faulty communications, their support is compromised by limited resources—the film doesn’t try to score political points on this score, but questions are implicit in the narrative—and their flesh and blood are anguishingly vulnerable when all the planning comes unraveled. A lot of moving parts in a moving film.

by Joe Morgenstern