Fight’s on. Axe, Danny and Marcus are all wounded, but still in the fight…
By now, everybody knows the story. A 4-man SEAL Strategic Reconnaissance (SR) team is compromised on target, and the running and gunning commences. Outnumbered fifty to one, all of them wounded, their desperate situation takes a turn for the worse when the Quick Reaction Force chopper is shot down. Three of the SEALs are killed, and the fourth — the Lone Survivor himself, Marcus Luttrell — saves himself by stealth and boldness, and only then is saved in turn, by an Afghan villager who refuses to turn him over to the Taliban: as a helpless, wounded man, he fell under the principle of Nanawatai, one of the undisputed facets of the tribal code of the Pathans, Pushtunwali.
And if you haven’t been doing hard time in the SHU, you know there’s a movie out, with Mark Wahlberg playing the role of Luttrell. You probably have an opinion about that. We sure did.
Turns out Marky Mark does pack the sand to play Luttrell.
We feared that the compact Wahlberg wouldn’t pack the sand to play Luttrell. We remembered the disaster of Tom Cruise failing abjectly as Jack Reacher, another actor trying to play a character a foot taller than he is. Even though Cruise is undeniably talented, and Reacher is a fictional character, and a completely unbelievable one to start with; while on the other side, Luttrell was very real. How could Marky Mark possibly play him?
Rather well, it turns out. Yes, the movie takes many liberties with events and no, they didn’t break the actor’s legs and stretch him. But the movie not only came out better than we feared and better than we expected, it was even better than we dared to hope.
Marky Mark (and the other actors playing the SEALs) is pretty convincing as a SEAL. The competitiveness, the energy, and the incredible never-say-quit ethos of special operations in general and the frogmen in particular comes through the screen with full power and credibility.
While the movie takes more liberties with the facts than, say, Black Hawk Down or We Were Soldiers, it does so in a respectful and, usually, understandable way. Marcus is happy with the way it turned out, and has lent his support to the publicity blitz.
This is one to see when it’s still in theaters. Gents, we bitch that they don’t make movies we like. Here’s a tip from someone on the outside who’s applied his MBA-fu to what makes Hollywood really tick: when they make a movie we like, help it make money and we will get more like that.
Acting and Production
You never notice how tall Mark Wahlberg isn’t in this film. Maybe that’s the moviemaker’s art: shoot him alone, shoot him from a low-set camera, play with camera angles, don’t juxtapose him with taller people. (One is reminded of the running gag about King Kong being three-foot-six in the old Peter O’Toole classic, The Stunt Man). Maybe he brings star power that makes him look bigger. He isn’t a handsome man, and his scruffy beard does make him seem like just one of the team guys.
We didn’t think Taylor Kitsch’s Mike Murphy stood out as much as the real one does in the book.
But the movie’s not just about Marcus. It’s about Mike, and Axe, and Danny. And bedamned if they didn’t get three more actors who could bring the SEAL. If we’d quibble about one, it’s Taylor Kitsch as Mike Murphy. He doesn’t seem to have the heft that the real Murph did; he’s a secondary player to Wahlburg’s Luttrell, and you know that he wasn’t, really. It’s not that Kitsch is bad, it’s that he’s not the leader, really, and it’s hard to tell if it’s his performance or the script or the direction. Conversely, Ben Foster as Matt Axelson is extremely good, and may be a future star himself.
Ben Foster was Matt Axelson; we expect we’ll all be seeing more of this young actor.
The producers worked hard to deliver scenery that looked like the region of Afghanistan where the fight took place, and did a decent job on the military details. Director Peter Berg keeps the action going, and the story explains adequately how a cascade of seemingly sensible single decisions, along with the cold hard fact that, “the enemy has a vote,” led to the worst single day in post-WWII SEAL/UDT history.
Accuracy and Weapons
Axe with the Mk12 SPR. Note the Doc Optic backup sight.
The story wouldn’t exist without guns, and to some extent they’re right. Two of the SEALs carry M4A1 carbines with M203 grenade launchers; the other two, Mk 12 Special Purpose Rifles (which is essentially an M4/M16 sniper variant). One very minute detail that the moviemakers got spot-on: Luttrell had never installed the Docter Optic micro reflex sight on his scope. Axe had one on his (as did the M4-armed Dietz and Murphy).
Their optics (including the PEQ-2 IR laser TPIAL), weapons, uniforms and equipment are all spot-on for the summer of ’05. Even the personal “morale patches” worn by the SEALs are correct, including Murphy’s FDNY Engine 33 patch and Luttrell’s Lone Star flag.
Matt Axelson is depicted as having a last firefight with an M9 pistol. This has produced a lot of online criticism, because “everyone knows” the SEALs carry SIG 226s. And one commenter at IMFDB said with complete confidence Axe was found with a .45.
This sent us back to the book. We also were not sure about the way the movie depicts the deaths of the SEALs, didn’t know where the death of the Taliban leader with his own nickeled PM was true, didn’t think the rescue of Luttrell took place amid a Taliban attack on the village.
Last quibble first: the book says it didn’t. Bound by Pushtunwali, the Taliban never did attack the village, although they would have liked to. The Taliban with the Makarov appears to be a creation of the screenwriters, and the deaths of each SEAL was a little different from the way the movie shows them going out.
Axelson’s pistol self-defense is described like this (p.366-67):
I survived, but I had not been shot five times like Axe, and I knew to the inch where he was last time I saw him…. I suggested they find the elder from Sabray, because he of all people could surely lead them to the dead SEAL.
Anyway, they found ask, with the bullets the Taliban rifles emptied into his face as he lay dying, just as they’d done to Mikey. But Axe was in a different place where I thought.… Axe was a few hundred yards even further away.
Axe still had three magazines left for his pistol when the grenade hit us. But when they found him, he was on the last one. And I could mean only one thing: Axe must’ve fought on, recovering consciousness after the blast and going for those bastards again, firing maybe 30 more rounds at them; must’ve driven them mad.
You’ll notice that neither there, nor, as far as we could find, anywhere in the book, was Axelson’s pistol defined. Note also, reading carefully, it does not say any pistol was recovered with Axe’s remains. Only that he still had one magazine. Presumably the pistol is, or was, a trophy for some, hopefully dead, Talib. We’re unaware of other sources in the public sphere about the recovery of Matthew Axelson, and are not privy to the report of the element which went out with the Sabray elder to find him, a report that was classified Secret at minimum. But in Marcus Luttrell’s book, he says a lot about what goes in to a SEAL in terms of character and training, and not so much about what goes on to a SEAL in terms of uniforms and equipment. That stuff is less important, after all. As the first and most important of the SOF Truths says, “Humans are more important than hardware.”
Other lapses into Hollywood include the battle at the village contemporaneous with the rescue of Luttrell, which did not happen. What really happened was more chilling, if perhaps harder to sell on the screen: the Taliban leader, Ben Sharmakh, and Luttrell’s protector, Mohammed Gulab, faced off over Luttrell and discussed what to do with him, at which point Sharmakh threatened Gulab’s family if he did not hand the wounded SEAL over. But Gulab would not and could not, under Pushtunwali, and Sharmakh would not, or could not, break the code and physically take him.
The most unbelievable stuff is the stuff that really happened.
Some scenes people are doubting — the discussion over what to do about the goat herders, for instance — really did take place. Those bone-crunching mountain falls? Really happened. Four SEALs fighting off 140-200 Talibs even after all four were seriously, three mortally, wounded? Stone truth.
How can that even be possible? A series of compressed scenes of BUD/S, the essential first step in the making of a SEAL, provide some clues to how men of unusual strength and character are selected — and built.
Other scenes that were more Hollywood than not were the death of the Taliban leader at the point of his own pistol (never happened, although he might have been zapped by an air strike), Danny Dietz being left to die amid the Taliban (he died by headshot whilst being carried by Marcus), and the team watching the helicopter go in. (By the time it was shot down, three of the SEALs were dead, and Marcus didn’t see it go down). Marcus also didn’t see Mike Murphy’s death. We won’t repeat how he describes it, but leave it as an exercise to the reader, to find the book and read it in his own words.
The CGI masters come in for particular praise for the helicopter crash, though. Usually these things are shown as a slow-moving, time-consuming carambolage. This is a very rare movie that shows the speed, shock and violence of an actual air crash, especially a helicopter crash. It’s unfortunate that the moment before the crash, as the SEALs prepare to rope from the ship, is unrealistically drawn out. (These guys would not have been sentimental at that moment. They would be all business, and no delays).
The helicopter crash scene, apart from the forgiveable long trail of the RPG, comports well to the report of the surviving MH-47 crew, who then withdrew from the area.
The bottom line
Lone Survivor is a wild ride and a tribute to the warriors who fought and died, and to the warriors who are still out there fighting. The departures from the “script” of Marcus Luttrell’s book, made presumably for the sake of visual storytelling, don’t seriously depart from the book’s character.
Real Deal SEALs (l-r): Axelson, Healy, Suh, Luttrell, Patton & Murphy. Except for Luttrell, all KIA 28 Jun 2005. RIP, brothers.
This is a movie that even the SEALs can appreciate, not to mention their brother SOF and their many supporters and fans across America and the world. It is a very good retelling of a very bad day.
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film.
As a successful movie still in the theaters, don’t look for this on DVD for some months.
- Rotten Tomatoes review page: