On June 27, 2005, the war in Afghanistan claimed the lives of 20 soldiers, the worst single day loss of life for the Naval Special Warfare personnel since WWII. There was one man who survived: Marcus Luttrell. Lone Survivor tells his story.
Luttrell was part of the Navy Seals Team 10, who were sent into the Afghanistan mountains to capture a Taliban leader in a mission called Operation Red Wings. The operation was intended to disrupt local anti-coalition militia activity, contribute to regional stability, and assist in the Afghani Parliamentary elections to be held three months later.
Luttrell was one of four men who were dropped into a remote mountainous area in the Kunar province, near the Pakistan border, to kill or capture Ahmad Shah, the Taliban leader who was believed to be hiding in those mountains, and who the previous week was responsible for the murder of several marines.
Mark Wahlberg plays Luttrell, Taylor Kitsch is Michael Murphy, Emile Hirsch is Danny Dietz, and Ben Foster is Matt "Axe" Axelson. Eric Bana plays their commanding officer Erik Kristensen, the officer who is responsible for the mission called Operation Red Wings.
Lone Survivor, based on the 2007 book by Luttrell (and Patrick Robinson) called Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, describes how the team was sent into practically unknown territory, only to be ambushed in a covert mission that could be described as harrowing and nightmarish. Lone Survivor is not only excellent and one of the best films of the year, but it's also one that will make you feel for these soldiers and what they go through, their acts of heroism and courage in the face of death.
It was on that day on June 27th, 2005 that the four-man reconnaissance and surveillance team boarded a helicopter near the Pakistan border. Almost as soon as the four men are dropped into the mountains, they are discovered by three goatherders (with their goats and a dog). Instead of killing them, the men let them go (Rules of Engagement won't allow them to kill them), even though they realize that the goatherders will more than likely alert anyone in the village below that they were in the mountains. They attempt to use their radio but it doesn't work. So immediately they realize that they are compromised, and that they need to move position, and fast. They use their satellite phone to reach Kristensen, but the line is very poor. Back at the base, Kristensen has a gut feeling that his men are in trouble, so he sends two Blackhawks to rescue them. Meanwhile the four men are in a rush to move position, and in their rush Axe hurts himself. Soon, the men are ambushed from all sides. Gunfire falls on them like rain. They are outnumbered, and are driven deeper into unknown and treacherous terrain. What happens in the rest of the film is heartstopping. One by one each man gets more badly injured, and terrifyingly, one of the Blackhawks sent to rescue them gets shot down by the Taliban in the mountains, with 16 men on board, all losing their lives, including Kristensen. It is at this point that you have to remind yourself this is a true story. All of this happened in real life.
With nowhere to go, the men continue to run away from what must be scores of Taliban men looking to kill them. And each man gets more and more injured, from getting shot at by the Taliban to falling off cliffs and breaking bones and getting concussions. As they continue to try and use their radio in an attempt to contact anyone anywhere to help them, they start realizing they are completely outnumbered and face only one prospect: death. The bullets and the blood and the men, who at this point are struggling just to survive, gets even more tense when Murphy, in a situation he knows he won't come out alive from, runs up a hill to get a connection on his SAT phone which would advise the Operations team back at the base of their position. Of the four men, only Luttrell survives, first by burrowing into a ditch, and then by being picked up by an Afghan not loyal to the Taliban. And, of course, we know that Luttrell survives to write the book on which this movie is based on.
Lone Survivor is a movie so tense, so dramatic, and so unreal it is hard to believe it's a true story. As Luttrell, Wahlberg is a revelation. Having proven himself as an actor in previous films including Boogie Nights and most recently The Fighter, Wahlberg is fantastic as Luttrell, so good that it is hard to imagine anyone else playing him. Kitsch, Foster and Hirsch are all also excellent as Luttrell's fellow Navy Seals. The sequences where the men get shot (and eventually killed) are so real, and so sad. Director Peter Berg, known for mostly doing television work (Chicago Hope and Prime Suspect) really cuts his teeth here with this very serious subject matter. Berg also wrote the script, after having been given the book by his production partner. Berg has said that the reason he decided to make this was because "Marcus wrote a book that, as much as it's about 19 people being killed on a tragic day in Afghanistan, is about brotherhood, sacrifice and team commitment."
Fittingly, and posthumously, Second Class Petty Officer Matthew "Axe" Axelson and Gunner's Mate Second Class Danny Dietz were awarded the Navy Cross, Lieutenant Michael Murphy was awarded the U.S. military's highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, while Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. Leading Petty Officer Luttrell would also go on to receive the Navy Cross. And all deservedly so.