Lone Survivor

Get past the dubious, gung-ho imperialism and this is a gripping, gruelling thriller

Lone Survivor
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Director: Peter Berg
Cert: 16
Genre: Action
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana
Running Time: 2 hrs 1 mins

Well, the title makes no concessions to the spoiler police. Adapted from a memoir by Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor tells the story of an ill-fated attempt to take out a top Taliban leader during the war in Afghanistan. It hardly needs to be said that just one Navy Seal is left standing, but you must wait a while to discover which of the grunts – in this Mark Wahlberg production – is there to enjoy the end credits. (Apropos of nothing, let us note that Mr Wahlberg plays the author of the book.)

In truth, none of that is allowed to matter. As with Ridley Scott's not-dissimilar Black Hawk Down, the combatants' characters are, for the most part, only dimly visible through the miasma of violence, noise and frenzied cutting. These were real people. Wives, mothers and children grieved for them. Peter Berg has, however, found time for only the faintest whispers of personality.

The work of a disciplined
utilitarian, Lone Survivor spends most of its busy duration pondering the mechanics of conflict. It is an impressive achievement. Unusually for a film so concerned with chaos, the picture never admits confusion as to the position and intention of its antagonists. With a little bit of Zulu here and a smidgeon of Fort Apache there, Lone Survivor is as gripping and lucid as any other recent exercise in dubious, gung-ho imperialism.

The picture begins with real-life footage of Navy Seals in training. There’s a great deal of shouting and no small amount of male bonding. Slyly (maybe even unintentionally), that opening sequence does clarify that many of the combatants – far from worrying about the struggle for liberation – are in it for the sheer joy of fighting.


Luttrell notes that he and his comrades were most energised when “pushing ourselves into those cold, dark corners where the bad things live, where the bad things fight. We wanted that fight at the highest volume”. At no point in the shouting does anybody mention, say, the importance of securing education for young Afghan women.

We are then propelled forward to a front-line camp where Eric Bana outlines the plan to track down one Ahmad Shahd. There is a lot of guff involving codenames and "comms". Everyone remains cool and focused. Nobody shows any great fear. Before too long, the team finds itself pinned down on a scraggy hill with no communication link to the forward base. A wretched retreat follows.

The film’s gestures to political nuance flit by in insignificant drafts. When the Seals capture an old man and two boys with no obvious connections to the Taliban, they briefly discuss eliminating them, but turn against the idea after pondering CNN’s response. Their eventual encounter with a village sympathetic to the US offers only a broad, binary take on Afghan politics.

It's hardly worth the effort. Lone Survivor was never likely to stir up the same ambiguities that caused so much trouble for Zero Dark Thirty. That earlier comparison with Zulu is probably the most useful.

In the modern, faux-verité style, Lone Survivor has no time for the British picture's sketching of easily distinguishable character types. The guys here are just the guys. Both films ask the viewer to dismiss thought of greater context (the Anglo-Zulu War was, after all, an unqualified colonial conflict) and focus on the minute-by-minute fight for survival. In the fury of battle, the only loyalty that applies is loyalty to comrades.

Shot in furious sweeps by Tobias A Schliessler, featuring clattering Oscar-nominated sound design, Lone Survivor does a magnificent job of making disorder intelligible. It's not a very nice film. But it is a splendidly effective one.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist