SWJ Film Review: Lone Survivor
Of late, many films on Special Operations Forces (SOFs) have been released that either mythologize the elite warriors or strive to shed light on actual SOF raids from a nuanced perspective. Moviegoers looking for realistic portrayal of SOF commandos will not be disappointed by Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor (2013). Viewers seeking a more nuanced political and ethical discussion on the Afghanistan War beware! The film leaves politics out of the discussion. In the tradition of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) a decade prior, Berg’s gritty adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg) memoir of the same title tells the true story of an ill-fated Navy SEAL raid that has gone awry. As I watched the film, I could not help but note similarities between it and Scott’s Black Hawk Down from which “Berg unmistakably took encouragement.”
Lone Survivor tells the story the four SEALs and their comrades who lost their lives in the line of duty. In 2005, a four-man SEAL surveillance and reconnaissance team’s mission to capture or kill a pro-Taliban warlord named Ahmed Shah was compromised after the team was discovered by three goat herders. Shortly thereafter, the team was destroyed by the onslaught of the “Mountain Tiger” fighters personally led by Ahmed Shah. Today, Operation Red Wings, as this mission came to be known, is chiefly remembered for having sustained the second largest losses in the history of the United States Naval Special Warfare Command which was surpassed later by the 2011 shootdown of a CH-47 Chinook.
Despite conflicting accounts as to what really transpired in that misbegotten operation, the film does its best to impart honor and dignity to the men who participated in it. But in so doing, as with Black Hawk Down before it, the movie fails to bring a full measure of character sketches to the plot. Indeed, a case can be made that both films suffer from their one-dimensional characterization of SOF warriors. For example, as with Black Hawk Down’s flimsy portrayal of Delta Force snipers Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randy Shugart who fended off waves of Somali militiamen attempting to capture Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durrant, we do not learn much about the mission commander LCDR Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana), the Congressional Medal of Honor recipient LT Michael P. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), or Petty Officers Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster). To the extent that we learn about the personal lives of these men at all, we are told that LT Murphy was shopping for a horse for his wedding before the tragic mission and that Dietz was married to an Asian woman.
Furthermore, as with Black Hawk Down, there are telling clues in the beginning that foreshadow the tragic outcomes of Red Wings. For instance, just as the Ranger and Delta Force officers are told that there would be no AC-130 gunships or tanks available in Black Hawk Down, LT Murphy and his men are told “to expect com problems” and are provided with conflicting intelligence reports. Also, just as the Rangers and Delta do not bring sufficient ammunition and medical supplies for the raid in Black Hawk Down, the SEALs are told not to take medicine to the gunfight. By the time the SEALs are discovered by the goat herders, Berg has Axelson noting that the mission is starting to “feel…like a cursed op.”
Also, with respect to cinematography, Lone Survivor is eerily identical to Black Hawk Down. In the middle of the film, both Axelson and Luttrell look on in utter disbelief and bewilderment as the Quick Reaction Force led by LCDR Kristensen is obliterated by incoming RPG projectiles. In addition, just as Black Hawk Down zooms in on the deaths of Sergeants Shugart and Gordon in slow motion, Berg overdramatizes the deaths of Petty Officers Axelson and Dietz and LT Murphy. In particular, in the scene dealing with the tragic death of LT Murphy, cinematographer Tobias A. Schliesser overdramatizes his heroism by having the lieutenant endure multiple gunshots before he is finally shot in the head. The palpable wheezing sound before Murphy finally succumbs to his death adds to the mawkish dramatization.
Having said all this, films are hardly reliable as teaching materials given their inherent biases and inaccuracies. Nonetheless, if there is object lesson to be gleaned from both films it would be that SOF raids should not be viewed as panaceas for tactical and operational shortcomings. Both the SEALs on that fateful mission in June, 2005 and the Task Force Ranger on the hunt for Mohamed Farrah Aidid in 1993 suffered from poor planning and intelligence. Even more important, Lone Survivor and Black Hawk Down show us that our adversaries can outwit and defeat SOF teams on their own terms.
As for the overall quality and the cultural impact of Lone Survivor, I suspect that it will leave a legacy akin to, say, We Were Soldiers (2002). That is, while definitely not an Oscar material, it will at least force the audience to think about, and hopefully appreciate, the selfless sacrifices of the men who died in June, 2005.
All things considered, I would give Lone Survivor three stars.
Jeong Lee is a freelance writer. His writings on U.S. defense and foreign policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications including East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the World Outline, the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), the Naval Institute’s blog, RealClearDefense and Small Wars Journal.