“Lone Survivor” underscores the boldness of its title in the first scene, in which Mark Wahlberg, playing the real-life Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, appears bloody and mangled on an operating room table, flatlining. This, it turns out, is your lone survivor: The guy who’s borderline dead.
One of the grittiest, most grueling war movies ever committed, “Lone Survivor” follows Luttrell’s memoir of the same name, about the catastrophic Operation Red Wings that saw several American servicemen killed in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan in 2005. To say how many would constitute a spoiler of sorts, but it’s not going out of bounds to say things don’t go well for the Luttrell and the three other SEALs spearheading the mission to kill a Taliban leader named Shah (Yousuf Azami). The screenplay and direction, both by Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”), diverges in some meaningful ways from Luttrell’s memoir, but the outline of the story is faithful, and could be summarized as online clickbait: “Four SEALs were pinned on a mountainside and picked apart by Taliban forces. How one of them survived will restore your faith in humanity.”
The battle scenes attain the kind of feel-it-in-your-kidneys realism that made the first 15 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” such a workout. It’s not just that our heroes are taking bullets from all sides and to all parts — fingers, feet, shoulders, bellies — but that, on more than one occasion, their only sensible choice among several terrible ones is to fling themselves heedlessly down the side of the mountain. The stunt work and filming here are uncommonly convincing, and even if Berg has a tendency to linger almost pornographically on sputtering blood and slow death, the whole mess looks frighteningly real.
Where “Lone Survivor” transcends a military procedural, though, is in the practical moral dilemma that propels the action. Luttrell and the other SEALs — played by Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster — are discovered on the mountainside above a Taliban encampment not by soldiers, but by wandering goatherds. The SEALs tie up the three goatherds and discuss, in frank and heated terms, the relative merits of killing them versus letting them go. Again, there are no good choices available, only less-worse ones.
That American troops should be put in such physical and moral peril underscores the case that Afghanistan was from the start a jumbled, imperialistic misadventure. But Taliban atrocities, depicted in “Lone Survivor” by an impromptu public beheading, illustrate the humanitarian imperative of American military intervention. So which was it? The film elides the political discussion as so many war movies have: by focusing on the lives and the sacrifice of soldiers.
The advantage “Lone Survivor” has, of course, is its nonfiction source material. The opening credits, rendered as a sort of home-movie montage of SEALs completing their hellish training, shows us the makings of these unbreakable hombres. The end credits begin with more footage and snapshots of the men depicted in the film. At times the snare-heavy score settles on a bit thick, but otherwise the tone is spot-on. “Lone Survivor” depicts war in micro, in which each man’s life is a tragedy, not a statistic. The action, gripping throughout, serves a real purpose here. We’re left hoping the same goes for the men we see killed.