RECAP: Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor (2013): Peter Berg

A mission in Afghanistan in 2005 goes terribly wrong, and only one man survives. He writes a book. Peter Berg reads that books. It becomes an early 2014 hit.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: One Navy SEAL survives a mission gone wrong in Afghanistan in 2005. 

Hero (6/10)

Spoiler alert: Mark Wahlberg is the only guy to survive the mission in Lone Survivor. If you didn’t infer that from the movie’s name and poster, well, sorry brah.

In 2005, during the height of the Afghanistan War, four Navy SEALs hike through mountainous terrain to identify and kill a Taliban leader named Shah (Yousef Azami), a man without earlobes.

Before we get to their actions, we must discuss the movie’s opening. The Navy gave Peter Berg archival footage of SEAL training, and some of this footage opens the film.

Half-frozen men shiver in boats and are forced to do math. Dozens of men link arms and sing “Silent Night” as waves crash over them. Men in pools lose their breath and cheat death. Men ring out.

Navy SEAL training is arguably the most brutal in the world, and we see that training before any actors show up. That footage stays in the back of the mind throughout the story told in Lone Survivor.

So, remembering that training, welcome to Bagram base in Afghanistan and a group of SEALs in the SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team. In their bunks men use DOD-issued Toughbook laptops and tack photos to the plywood walls.

In a nearby village is a Taliban leader named Shah, a man who has killed dozens of Marines and needs to get got. Military brass sends the best of the best, a group of four SEALs including Marcus Luttrell, Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz, and Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster, respectively).

The four heroes.

After hiking toward and scouting out Shah’s compound from the surrounding mountains, Marcus and company are discovered by a family of goatherds. That’s when shit gets real.

Not a shot is fired for the first hour of Lone Survivor, which seems strange, but enough gunfire and explosions pack the second half that it feels like you’re watching two movies.

Marcus and the others endure terrific carnage as they fight their way through a bevy of Taliban. Their bodies bruised and broken, three of the four men will not survive (obviously). That Marcus survives is more luck than anything.

The group’s sniper and medic, Marcus is spiritual advisor and horse expert for his immediate superior. Marcus sleeps with a pistol beside his pillow, because one must always be prepared. Perhaps he was a boy scout.

Marcus is a tough bastard, perhaps the toughest in the group. Throughout Lone Survivor he is shot multiple times, fall twice down a mountain, shove two bones back into his leg, use a knife to remove shrapnel from his leg, (likely) suffer ringing ears from multiple rocket explosions near his head, and get roughhoused by a Taliban foot soldier.

What Marcus endures defies belief, unless you remember the training montage that opens the film. “There’s a storm inside of us,” Marcus says near the beginning, a drive to push farther than anyone felt possible. Consider this USA Today article, which states that more SEALs died in training than combat from 2013-2016.

If Marcus could survive that training, a few bullet wounds and broken legs won’t stop him. Despite the brutal beating Marcus takes, he still finds time to attend to his duties as medic. During a lull in fighting, he checks bullet wounds of his buddies and, having lost his med kit, pours dirt in their wounds to stop the bleeding.

Don’t ignore Marcus’s Godly streak. While falling down the mountain, Marcus loses his sniper rifle, probably the squad’s most effective weapon. He finds it lying a few feet away and says, “God’s looking out for us.” Then he turns around and tells a shot-up Dietz to “Suck it the fuck up.”

After Marcus’s brothers die on the mountain, he becomes the Lone, but still has to do the Survivor part. He finds a stream and dunks his body into it. Emerging, Marcus finds Pashtun villagers offering sanctuary.

From the moment Marcus meets Gulab he loses his power. It’s time to let the locals take control, nursing Marcus and fighting the Taliban. He’s rescued and survives, though part of him will always be dead on that mountain with his brothers. His only regret: they didn’t kill more of those Taliban fuckers.

Villain (1/10)

The Taliban is the clear enemy. A warlord named Shah is the target when the SEALs leave Bagram. However, his underling Taraq (Sammy Sheik) emerges as the movie’s chief villain.

Taraq is more ruthless and the man willing to behead Marcus and show his head to Al Jazeera. He’s got that chip-on-the-shoulder sneer the angriest villains possess, one that his superior Shah lacks.

Hungry to kill Americans, Taraq finds Marcus in Gulab’s village. He drags the battered SEAL to a log, where earlier a local was beheaded. Gulab challenges Taraq and, with a group of villagers surrounding him with guns, demands that Taraq leave Marcus to the code of Pashtunwani.

Taraq, to his credit, leaves Marcus. He promises to slaughter the village, a nearly follows through later that day. So, maybe, not to his credit. He just leaves Marcus to get some more guys and more guns.

The named Taliban receive little screen time and less characterization. That’s not to say that Lone Survivor demonizes them, instead they seem like afterthoughts.

Action/Effects (8/10)

Not a single shot is fired for about an hour in Lone Survivor. I kept waiting for an opening attack or raid that never came. Turns out Berg and company saved the fireworks for the second half.

Atop a forested mountain deep in Afghanistan, the SEALs have been discovered, the Taliban alerted, and the comms are out. The Americans climb to what turns out to be a false summit and fail to communicate with the base. Now they know they are fucked. Murphy wants to go home and watch Anchorman. Marcus believes they are about to “let our love light shine.” They fall back to the tree line and await their fate.

Not long later, dozens of Taliban fighters have surrounded the SEALs’ position. “You’re about to get contact,” Murphy says after a brief recon. I wondered, before the shooting started, if it would be more advantageous for the SEALs to split up and try to flank the enemy.

Silly, silly question. The Americans could only shoot and run. And that’s what they do. Marcus, the group’s sniper, starts the killing, sniping a few guys. Axe, Dietz, and Murphy kill men as well. Each man fires a few rounds and retreats down the mountain as the others provide cover fire.

After shooting about 10 of the enemy, Dietz tries another radio call and has his trigger hand shot. Later, we’ll see the stubs of two fingers. Axe is shot in the arm. They will be shot so many more times.

Murphy is the first to engage in hand-to-hand combat, smashing his opponent’s face twice into rocks, and then shooting him twice in the head. Smart move; always finish the kill.

The four actors endured light training before making Lone Survivor. I gaged their actions and speech mostly authentic. For example: “Immediate QRF”; ” Contact 12 o’clock”; and “Motherfucker”.

After the SEALs stop the first wave of fighters, at least a dozen, the Taliban unveil they heavy machine guns, whose bullets strafe the forest. Marcus is shot in the gut. “FUCK YOU,” he shouts. The men know they have to flee. A smoke grenade provides that cover.

Axe is shot again, and Marcus for the first time. Amazingly the four men stay together when they can. Boxed in and facing rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), their options are limited. Their bodies take more bullets, and RPGs explode nearby. The radio is shot to shreds.

They retreat to a ledge. Out of nice hillside, it’s jump or die. Or, perhaps, jump and die. An exploding RPG round solves their dilemma, knocking them off the ledge in glorious slow motion. Our heroes will escape!

Oh. Not so much. Four bodies crash and thrash down a punishing mountainside of stone, trees, and brush. That no one dies in the fall defies belief. The four regroup long enough to be shot again. Earlier, the movie tracks a boy as he flees back to his village to warn of the four American commandos hiding in the forest. That boy leaps down the mountain more that walks or runs, and the scene helps us believe the speed with which the Taliban find the SEALs after their initial mountain slide.

The endless RPG rounds sprout fireballs as they explode, always close enough to be in frame, never close enough to maim the Americans. The SEALs sport wretched face cuts. Their bodies must be riddled with bullet and falling wounds, but with all their clothing and gear we can’t see.

Marcus calls for more smoke. He seems the least injured and, as medic, forces the others to pack dirt in their wounds. Dietz, the most shocked, speaks loudly and reveals their position, although they could not have hidden for long with all those men searching for them. They retreat to another ledge.

Axe and Murphy are first to leap into another fall. This drop will hurt the viewer more, because we know what’s coming, how bad it’s going to get. Marcus fireman-carries Dietz to the edge. An enemy shoots Dietz in the shoulder, causing Marcus to drop Dietz and fall over the ledge.

Another punishing fall ensues. The three SEALs (no Dietz), find themselves among a rocky field, unable to hide in tree cover. The guys want to get Dietz, who is up high, being surrounded by Taliban fighters, one of whom takes his wedding ring.

RPGs are blasting rock mere feet from the SEALs. “You can die for your country,” Axe mutters as he peers through his scratched rifle scope. “I’m going to live for mine.” Blammo, another bad guy down.

Murphy, holder of the satellite phone, spots an exposed ridge. He wants to make a call, to bring in the firestorm. Marcus isn’t thrilled about his boss’s plans, but he doesn’t stop him. Murphy hands over his remaining clips. “Never end the fight,” he says and takes off sprinting up the rock field to reach the ridge.

Murphy draws much enemy fire, and Marcus snipes several Taliban, including one raining RPGs on them. Marcus reaches the outcrop with the setting sun behind him. He calls base for air support on a bloody phone, taking shots in the knee and three in the back.

Cut to the base. Two chinooks loaded with men fly to the rescue. Apache support is called off toward a truck convoy taking fire elsewhere. The transports fly dangerously, without air support, toward Marcus and Axe, who hobble through woods. Axe thinks it’s pretty cool that he has a head wound. His ear is charred and right eye swollen shut. “Are we dead?” he asks. He tells Marcus to tell his wife that he loves her and that he died with his brothers.

The enemy keeps coming. Someone fires a rocket at the chinook as the chopper tries to discharge its load. A direct hit forces the cockpit to sheer off from the rest of the chopper in a horrific moment. Marcus screams in despair as the chinook crashes and explodes down a cliff face.

Axe, meanwhile, lumbers to a tree and, with his handgun, shoots at more enemies. The only sound is his wheezing. The enemy creeps closer, hesitant to challenge the terrible warrior. Two machine gun shots miss high on the tree. A third strikes Axe’s head, killing him.

Back to Marcus, an RPG shot tosses him further down this endless mountain. He finds a rock to hide beneath as men walk by. The sun drops to the ridge line, and the Taliban, whoever’s left of them, retire to the village for the night. Marcus sleeps under the rock.

Take a deep breath. One of the longer gunfights of the decade rouses and excites. Multiple RPG rounds detonate nearby the Americans. Each man is shot several times. The mountainside sequence excels in gunfire effects and keeping the viewer well oriented. The enemies are up, the heroes are down. That’s important, especially as the fight continues.

Sidekicks (5/8)

A seaman’s commanding officer is not often a sidekick, but this movie is called Lone Survivor and the lone survivor is Marcus Luttrell.

Marcus’s commanding officer is Murphy. The other two men in the outfit are Dietz and Axe.

Lone Survivor affords its four main characters brief development on the day before their mission. Murphy might be the squad leader, but he looks to Marcus for relationship advice.

In an early scene, Murphy, who’s soon to be married, receives his fiancee’s idea of a good wedding gift: two Arabian horses. Instead of searching for the cost of such a stallion, he walks down the hall to Marcus’s room, wakes him, and asks what he knows about them. Marcus knows. “She got good taste,” he says.

Dietz and Axe are the other, non-surviving underlings in Murphy’s squad. There’s not much to differentiate the two men, except that Axe is pro-killing the goatherd’s children while Dietz is ambivalent.

The four men function better as a team in the field. They cover each other, call out clear areas, and organize retreats.

Few people could keep their hackles up after getting shot once, but these guys get hit several times and keep fighting back. Their adrenaline kicks in and keeps kicking, and it’s hard to imagine surviving even one second without such aid.

Lone Survivor‘s long firefight allows the men display their courage and survivability. They had a job to do, nothing more, and they did it to the best of their abilities.

Henchmen (2/8)

Two of the Taliban have names and recognizable faces in Lone Survivor. Shah, the leader that the Americans want to kill, is the leader of his Tali squad, but he takes a backseat in the film.

Shah is a man missing his earlobes for some reason, and he’s responsible for the death of more than 20 Marines the day before.

Once the SEALs spot Shah in his village, he recedes from the story. All the fighters become the enemy, attacking Marcus and company for nearly 45 minutes of screen time.

These fighters are fearless, relentless, full of hatred. They must be to challenge the best fighters in the world.

What they possess in courage they lack in fighting skill. Countless times these guys will miss the Americans, surely because their guns are the notoriously inaccurate AK-47 rifles.

Consider the death of Axe. Axe, shot countless times, sits back to a tree. One eye swollen shut and with a bleeding head wound, he’s finished. The enemy approaches slowly. Two shots strike the tree above Axe’s head before a third hits its mark and kills him.

So they can’t shoot for shit. Does it matter when they have heavy machine guns and endless rocket-propelled grenades? No, it doesn’t.

Later, these guys will attack a Pashtun village. The attack goes well for the enemy, until Apaches show up and lay waste to them.

Stunts (6/6)

Twice in Lone Survivor do the four SEALs fall down a mountain. The stunt coordinator for the movie had stunt actors literally fall down a mountainside to recreate these scenes for the movie.

They are unbelievable stunts. I can’t imagine the actors escaping injuries from these sce–this just in, they didn’t. Lots of injuries. Stuntmen were told to hit the mountainside and go with it, whatever came. Most stunt actors plot their every move, but Berg wouldn’t let them, asking for verisimilitude.

These two falling scenes are brutal, visceral, gripping, and all the adjectives that make you want to hurl after riding a roller coaster. Scrapes, cracks, and thuds accompany each bodies smashing into trees, dirt, and rocks.

The first fall occurs in slow motion, when you think it will end heroically. At the end you think, “That was awful.” Later, before they fall again, you think, “This is going to be awful.” And it is. Harrowing stuff.

Climax (2/6)

“Why are you doing this for me?” Marcus asks Gulab moments before the wall behind him explodes. The Taliban have returned.

The Taliban start blowing away everything. Rusted car hulks, stone wall, people: everything. The Taliban is well funded and has many RPGs to shoot at its enemies.

The Americans receive a “verified letter” from Marcus detailing his location. It seemed Marcus only wrote “This is Marcus” on the map sent with an old man who ran across the mountains to the nearest American base, which sounds a long way from verified.

Never mind, because four Apaches are speeding to the village. Meanwhile, Gulab rushes his son to relative safety.

The villagers provide some resistance, but the Taliban overwhelm them quickly. A random soldier finds Marcus and kicks him around, just when he got a new shirt. Rude.

Taraq stalks Gulab through the village, after someone shoots the latter in the arm. Gulab eyes his antagonist around a corner and charges him so he won’t be peppered with AK-47 fire. This upper hand doesn’t last long, as Taraq chokes Gulab and has him on the ground.

Gulab knows something about Taraq, I think, because he has the presence of mind to notice the handgun holstered near Taraq’s chest. Gulab draws it out and puts four bullets in the killer’s chest.

Back in Marcus’s room, the injured man is tossed into walls by the random freedom fighter/domestic terrorist. He’s also getting choked out. Taliban fighting manual rule 432: When out of RPGs, choke a fool.

Marcus’s brief English training pays off. As he’s close to death, Gulab’s kid pops in to say hello and to hand him a knife. Marcus takes it and stabs his assailant several times in the gut.

The Taliban surrounds the village. All opposition crumbles. Suddenly, Apaches crest a hill and are engaged to fire. They shoot everyone. The village’s “Main Street” doubles as the easiest shooting gallery in American military history, and the gunships kill everyone. Dozens are dead. Might be some friendlies; that’s never discussed.

The enormous C-130 flying through the clouds fires its guns, and their rounds blast the hillside like volcanic explosions. Foot soldiers walk in and kill the rest. That’s the Yoo-Nited Fucking States military full fucking firepower. Yee-haw!

Someone drops red smoke outside the village to mark a landing zone. A chopper lands, some men find Marcus, confirm his identity, and fly him to safety. The army won’t let Gulab go with him, but Marcus has the time to thank him and the kid.

“I died up on that mountain,” Marcus narrates. However, “there is a part of me that lived.” His brothers taught him that “You are never out of the fight.”

The movie is dedicated to the men of Operation Red Wings.

Jokes (0/4)

I think there’s literally one joke in Lone Survivor.

Marcus needs to extract shrapnel from his leg. He’s sweating and bleeding in Gulab’s village. Gulab’s kid, a wide-eyed boy of about seven, listens as Marcus begs repeatedly for a knife. The kid slowly says, “knife,” and Marcus thinks he’s made himself clear. The boy leave and returns, with a duck.

Setting (3/4)

Afghanistan’s mountains, valleys, and plains, play significant roles in Lone Survivor. For obvious reasons the production team was not allowed to film in Afghanistan. I doubt it even tried. Instead they set their cameras in New Mexico’s Sante Fe National Forest.

Enchanting escarpments! Such spruces! Ravenous rock outcroppings! The locations are beautiful and almost make one want to go on dangerous infiltration missions inside a war zone. How many dads in America have longed to trek through the woods with their sons and a back load of gear? Is that not about what Marcus and the other men do in this movie?

Many films set in nature avoid logical landscapes. The viewer never achieves a sense of place. The natural elements easily blend toward fantastical. Not so in Lone Survivor. The SEALs are always on a mountainside looking down toward villages. They climb toward a summit to make comms, hunker below the tree line, then roll their way to the bottom. Up or down, one way or the other, is all that matters.

Commentary (1/2)

The politics of war are touched on in a key scene midway through Lone Survivor. Taliban-friendly goatherds have discovered the SEALs and are being held by them. The Americans debate what to do.

Taliban goatherd

The moment the children run back to the village, Shah will send dozens of fighters to attack. The Americans could leave them in the mountains overnight, although they might freeze. Or, they could kill them.

Axe wants to kill them. Marcus knows they can’t, because CNN will run headlines of SEALs murdering children. That Navy SEALs would stare death in the face and consider the press ramifications on the other side of the Earth seems extraordinary, but these are extraordinary men.

Lone Survivor offers no discussion of the war’s reasons or its outcome (still waiting on that one), instead focusing on the incredible survival abilities of US Navy SEALs.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Lone Survivor is not concerned with the Taliban’s ideals or its politics. Nor are all Afghanistan citizens portrayed as America’s enemies. This movie is not interested in the why of the war, only that Marcus and company face huge odds, and only Marcus lives through the fight.


  • (3) Automatic war movie bonus

Summary (37/68): 55%

Lone Survivor tells a story of survival against an insatiable enemy deep in that enemy’s territory. Most of the characters don’t survive.

Harrowing action well conceived and executed (listen to those gunshots echo!), Peter Berg keeps the story focused on the second-to-second survival of its core four characters, ignoring most political ramifications or consequences to anyone besides the men on the mountain.

The characters are narrowly defined, only two or three scenes differentiate the three men who don’t survive. But catastrophic action and two gruesome falling scenes drag the movie to a satisfying conclusion.