Lone Survivor

I saw this movie a while ago, back when it was in theaters and playing out to drastically different reviews. I didn’t want to write on it until I’d also read the book, not knowing how much was cinematic fabrication and how much was based off the SEALs experience. There are broad discrepancies between the book and movie — which almost makes it a more enjoyable experience, to read and view. The book has one view, the movie another — and both are powerful messages.


The book focuses on the life of the Navy SEAL — the arduous training, the attention to detail, the brotherhood that is established between the frogman, the dedication to country and to one another. The emphasis is on the man. The movie, in contrast, delves more deeply into the chaos of war, and the utter desperation of four men, behind enemy lines, and the impossible decisions that have to be made. Nowhere is that divergence in theme more clear than the beginning of both book and film. Both look at the training of Navy SEALs, but while the seemingly impossible training takes up a good half of the memoir, it occupies only a few minutes during open credits of the movie.

SEAL training could read like the worst case of hazing ever — the trainees are forced into frigid water, told to roll around in sand, and then engage in painful, difficult physical tasks. Strong, tough men bow out — only the strongest survive. They are yelled at nonstop, told that they aren’t good enough incessantly, and denied sleep on a regular basis. It sounds inhumane to the outsider. I can remember myself at eighteen, talking to my brother in basic training, thinking that he was, essentially, being indoctrinated into a cult. SEAL training sounds a hundred times worse.

Years later, and with my own background, I see now the necessity of such training. There’s the physical component, of course — our country’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen will be asked to lug around forty pounds of equipment for hours a day, across miles of potentially dangerous terrain. It’s essential that they handle that. But, beyond the physical, there’s a mental game — a man who can’t handle the rigors of training surely cannot handle the chaos of war, and a SEAL who can’t handle a lack of sleep can’t handle the special operations that he will be sent on.


The movie spends a next chunk of time introducing us to the men of SEAL team 10 — Marcus, Mike, Dan, Axe, and Shane. The book weaves these men in and out, but there is no time spent showing us the relationship — it is a simply stated fact. These men are brothers.

These four men (Shane, at the last moment, left behind) head out on a normal mission, to do reconnaisance on a Taliban leader. Their mission isn’t to engage — it’s to gain more intel, and then call for reinforcements. They quickly find themselves in poor terrain, with a seemingly insurmountable mission. There’s no option to turn back, though, and no man considers it. They hunker in, and do the best they can. Until a flock of goats suddenly wanders into their hiding spot, and with those goats several Afghani men.

What follows is, to me, one of the most terrifying moments of the book and film. The four Americans quickly overpower the Afghan men, and then have a rushed discussion of what to do. The military rules of engagement (ROEs) prohibit them from killing these men, as do the Geneva Conventions. Short of self defense, the Americans cannot fire upon noncombatants. These goatherds carry no weapons, are not dressed in a uniform, show no indication of being Taliban of al Qaeda. The Americans cannot lawfully fire upon them.

Of course, the war in the MIddle East is not a traditional war. Terrorists do not wear uniforms, and informants are everywhere. The SEALs know that there is a strong risk that these men are informants, and that they will return to tell Al Qaeda of the mission. But it’s only a risk, and hasn’t been confirmed. The film uses this as an instance to tell us more about the character of the men — who is the leader, who is the follower, and who will bear ultimate responsibility. Nobody wants to make the call, and who can blame them. Sanction murder, or risk their lives and their mission. The scene plays out in eerie calm. It’s a life or death decision, made on a silent mountaintop, with nary a weapon in sight.


What follows next is carnage, in it’s most simple terms. It’s chaos, devastation, and desperation. It’s small moments of courage, and a fight to the death. This is where the film plays out with its greatest strength, showing all of the dirt, grime, and pain. It’s also where many critics found their greatest complaints with the film — too much attention played to the blood, guts, and gore, and a spinning camera that makes it hard to follow the action. The dialogue is often corny — but corny only to those who have never been involved in the Armed Forces. (My only complaint is with the casting. While Mark Wahlberg does an admirable turn as Luttrell, he also has about twenty years on the actual men — it’s hard to remember, sometimes, how young these SEALs really were).

This is how soldiers, sailors, and airmen speak — in jokes and platitudes. But the words aren’t corny — they are deeply felt. These are men and women who will give their lives for an ideal. Some of these — indeed, these four men — embody the Core Values of their Services. Honor, Courage, Commitment for the Navy. Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, Personal Courage for the Army. And for the Air Force, Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in all we do (yes, the airmen always have to be the wordiest). The dialogue may be trite to the outsider, but it touches home for those who serve.

The climax for both book and film take place in a small Pashtun village that eventually takes in Marcus Luttrell, the only survivor of the skirmish in the mountains. In the novel, Luttrell attempts to outline Pashtun values and beliefs (if you want a truly excellent outlining of Pashtun and Pakistani culture, check out “I Am Malala”). In the movie, no exposition is given — except that we see the common humanity between Luttrell and his rescuers.

The film takes full advantage of its score (or rather, complete lack of it in many parts). It takes advantage of its ability to slow down time, to go in close to the actors’ faces, to capture the pain, terror, and desperation. I spent the last half of the film with tears rolling down my face. I spent the end of the book with convulsions in my chest.

The book is not the best-written piece of literature available, but it’s true and honest. The film is not the best-written, cleverly plotted piece of cinema, but it is unflinching in its portrayal of men making decisions that, while consistently heroic, are not strictly black and white. The book calls up questions of what are appropriate military tactics, which the film stays away from, in a wise move. Both are worth checking out, particularly for those who have family or friends who serve in any of the Armed Forces.

About splashfromabove

I believe firmly that through reflection, we gain in appreciation. My blog is all about taking a step back from what I read, view, or discover, and looking at it slightly askance.
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