One word you won't see used to describe "Lone Survivor," the fact-based movie about a FUBAR Navy SEALs operation: "contemplative."
Above all an action movie, "Lone Survivor" bucks the trend of recent thought-provoking tales of survival like "All is Lost," "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave."
The firepower-filled film based on Marcus Luttrell's nonfiction book (co-written with Patrick Robinson) takes for granted the simple psychological drive of survival and doesn't pause to consider philosophical implications. The main impression "Lone Survivor" leaves is of bodies taking incredible punishment and clinging to life while under constant attack.
Producer-star Mark Wahlberg plays Luttrell, one of a four-man SEAL team tasked with locating and assassinating senior Taliban commander Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami). Dispatched as a part of 2005's Operation Red Wings, Luttrell's colleagues include team leader Lt. Michael P. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster). Based in Bagram, the men hunker down in the Hindu Kush mountains of the Kunar province to stake out Shah and plan their move.
But their wooded cover isn't as secure as they believed, and the mission quickly devolves. Once surrounded by dozens of Taliban, the mission becomes one of hopeful radio contact (compromised by the rocky terrain) and pure endurance. Bad proceeds to worse and worst before the spoiler-y title comes to pass.
Echoing "Chinatown," Luttrell puts it, "It's just Afghanistan, that's all."
One might read into that comment and the failed operation a whiff of doubt about the War in Afghanistan, but tonally this "band of bros" story celebrates the toughness and fraternal bond of the American military man. Director Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights," "Battleship") opens with a montage, demonstrating the elite status of the Navy SEAL, that could easily double as a recruitment film; subsequent jocular banter attempts to endear us to the men about to be in harm's way.
The film's final act balances the monstrous Taliban with the Pashtun villagers who provide aid and comfort to Luttrell out of their ancient code of honor and current hatred of the Taliban; the enemy of their enemy is their friend. So "Lone Survivor," despite depicting traumatic war horrors, isn't an anti-war film. What it is, unambiguously, is pro-troops. And with reasonable accuracy and visceral expressiveness, it depicts true events.
Still, the unwillingness to "engage" in larger questions disconcertingly reduces a real-life tragedy to an action movie. When violence helps to tell a story of thematic import, that's one thing, and when action serves as an element in an adventure fiction, that's another, but "Lone Survivor" is something else entirely, something that some will find deeply stirring and others will consider off-putting, if not distasteful.