[20 December 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“There’s a storm inside of us,” says Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), “I’ve heard many guys speak of this, a burning, a river, a drive.” (And apparently… a bit of poetry too.) Luttrell’s talking about Navy Seals, men who never give up, who push themselves “into those dark, cold corners where the bad things live. Where the bad things fight.” As he narrates, Lone Survivor offers illustration: guys in water and running on the beach, grimacing and breathing hard, shivering and holding their breath, sweating and bleeding.
As much as the movie makes clear the Seals’ legendary dedication and durability, it will go on to literalize the “dark, cold corners” and, of course, the “bad things”. Just so, it’s not long before the demonstrations of drills and camaraderie give way to the mission in Afghanistan that will leave Marcus as the titular survivor, the only team member who can tell this harrowing story about the loss of 19 Americans during a failed 2005 mission. As this is a movie directed by Peter Berg, that harrowing part takes up the bulk of its running time, such that you can see how all the storm inside, the drive and the drills, prepare Marcus and his men to face the bad things.
Here they live and fight in remote mountains (are there any other kind in Afghanistan, at least in the Afghanistan of the US imagination?). Dropped into rough and rocky terrain with little tree cover and plenty of harsh weather, the men are looking for one especially bad thing, senior Taliban commander and killer of Marines Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), introduced on a screen at the Seals briefing at Bagram Air Force base, as he and his second, Taraq (Sammy Sheik), storm through a village and terrorize children. No doubt about it, as Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) helpfully points out, Shah is a “bad guy”. He’s also clever and brutal and knows his world in much more detail than the invaders who arrive with so much firepower and technology—technology that fails in the remote mountains, by the way, when the comms go down: dun dun dun!
What’s more, Shah’s supported by locals, though it’s not clear if this is because they fear him or they fear the Americans. And so, when the Seals are discovered by a foursome of goatherds, they have a decision to make, whether to kill them, tie them up and leave them, likely to die in that harsh weather, or let them go, as the Geneva Conventions require. Round and round they go, Marcus listening to the debate among Mikey (Taylor Kitsch), Danny (Emile Hirsch), and Axe (Ben Foster), each with his own opinion on what to do and reasons for it. The film here takes a moment too, to note that a couple of the goatherds are children, and even to allow that they’re afraid of these foreigners so freakishly transformed with equipment and armor. It also features the Americans’ concerns about consequences, that, as Marcus puts it, “If we kill these kids, it’s international news. CNN doesn’t care about Rules of Engagement. SEALs kill kids: that’s the story, forever.” While the guys with the storm inside them ponder the alternatives, the camera cutting from one grim face to another, you know what their decision will be, because, well, you know the film’s title.
The decision, reached and announced by Marcus (with the added note that, after all the unit is not a democracy), leads more or less directly to their engagement with Shah’s men. At this point the film turns into a kind of Mad Max on foot, essentially an extended chase sequence in which every body on screen might be blown up, impaled, decapitated, dismembered, and exploded. This provides for all manner of tension and excitement, as well as plenty of bloody excess and boy bonding. The Seals are noble and resolute, the bad guys are cruel and implacable, and, as the Americans dwindle in number, their situations are increasingly desperate. The desperation is rendered in smashed face makeup, raucous camerawork, layers of noisy gunfire, and a smattering of slow motion footage to emphasize the abysmal abuse inflicted the men as they slam over cliffs and hit every sharp rock and jutting tree branch on the way down.
All this mayhem, the battle against the land, on top of the guys’ declarations of loyalty and promises to protect one another, begin with the notion that the Americans are heroic (underlined by the closing montage soundtrack choice of Peter Gabriel’s cover of Bowie’s “Heroes”), come to this dark corner to fight the bad things. And then, Marcus stumbles on a not-bad thing, that is, a village where one man saves him, despite the danger such action plainly poses to his own family, here, a young, wide-eyed boy (Rohan Chand), whose mother and siblings remain off-screen.
As much as Gulab (Ali Suliman) serves Marcus’ plot, he has little to say about how he’s come to this risky decision, a decision that in its way, matches the one Marcus made earlier. When Marcus asks why he’s helping him, Gulbab offers only this cryptic bit of English, “No Taliban”. When this means he is not Taliban or he resists the Taliban or both or something else, the answer is good enough for Marcus, who needs to be hidden, fed, and healed, at least enough so he might be picked up by the Americans, whom Gulab sends his father to fetch from a base that’s probably miles away.
Lone Survivor offers up that Marcus understands his good fortune, moved to tears by the child who looks at him with such wonder and awe. It also shows that Gulab and his fellow villagers are menaced by Taraq and the other murderous Taliban bullies. It doesn’t spend much time worrying that the noisy machine that swoops in to take Marcus away is one more instance of the Americans—with storms inside them—missing big pictures, the offense they embody and the violence they represent.