Late on the night of June 27, 2005, an MH-47 Special Operations Aircraft inserted, via fast rope, a four-man Navy SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team between a pair of Afghani mountain peaks. Their mission was labeled Operation Red Wing.
Team Spartan―made up of team leader Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, Gunner's Mate 2nd Class Danny P. Dietz, Sonar Technician 2nd Class Matthew G. Axelson and Corpsman 1st Class Marcus Luttrell―were all seasoned pros, ready to do their job and ready to hike the mountainous mile and a half necessary to reach their destination.
Upon reaching the Area of Interest, the SEALs followed protocol, set up mountainside overwatch positions and soon spotted their target―terrorist leader Ahmed Shahd walking the dirt streets of a village below. There was only one problem: After repeated attempts they could not establish clear radio communication with home base. So it was decided they'd dig in and reattempt connection after a few hours of shuteye. Again, as per protocol.
That's when everything fell apart.
Team Spartan was accidentally discovered by three local goatherds who all but stumbled over them in the mountain undergrowth. After determining that the men were civilians—not combatants—the SEALs faced a quandary. What should they do now that the operation's cover had been blown? If they let the men go, there was surely a chance they would run to the Taliban forces―the Taliban army―in the village below, leaving the SEALs exposed and, without radio communication, unsure of extraction. On the other hand, even though they could surely defend their need to do so, if the unarmed goatherds were truly innocents, it would be morally wrong to kill them―not to mention likely to show up on CNN and trumpeted as a war crime.
Lt. Murphy orders the men released, according to the rules of civilian engagement. And the Navy SEALs begin moving to a point where they might regain radio contact.
Two hours later, the Taliban ambush arrive in force from three sides.
The film's opening moments give us a thumbnail sketch of the kind of torturous training that SEAL candidates go through―pushing their minds and bodies to the breaking point. It also gives us a glimpse into the reasons these men form a lasting bond of brotherhood and interdependence.
Both of those elements come fully into play later as the four members of Team Spartan fight through gunshot wounds and broken bones to protect one another, dragging the injured to safety and going far beyond what most would consider even above-normal levels of physical endurance. When the 20-to-one battle gets to its hottest point, one badly wounded SEAL turns to his fellow combatant and says, "If I die, I need Cindy to know how much I loved her and that I died with my brothers with a full f‑‑‑ing heart."
In a heroic last-ditch effort to call for help for his comrads, one SEAL climbs a rock outcropping to where his SAT phone might make a connection. In doing so, of course, he knowingly exposes himself to deadly fire from nearby Taliban shooters.
Only a horribly bloodied and broken Luttrell is finally left alive (hardly a spoiler given the film's title). And in the story's second act (which is devoted to mercy and courage), he's found and rescued by local Pashtun villagers. We eventually learn that these Afghani villagers have a 2,000-year-old code of honor that calls upon them to protect any injured man from his enemies. In spite of the Taliban threat that they will all be slaughtered, then, the villagers care for Luttrell for five days, taking up arms on his behalf until notified American forces can arrive.
When things start going wrong, one of the SEALs opines that it's starting to feel like a cursed op. Luttrell assures him it's not. And later, after a deadly situation turns out a bit better than they thought, Luttrell grins, "See? God's looking out for us." The other guy retorts, "I'd hate to see Him when He's p‑‑‑ed."
A SEAL rookie recites a team mantra that's sprinkled with macho, sexualized references to male and female genitalia. One of the SEALs rolls out of bed bare-chested so the camera can eye his ripped physique.
Early on, a Taliban group drags a suspected traitor out into a village square and viciously hacks off his head (just out of the frame) for the rest of the local villagers to see. That's disturbing and grisly enough, but just a hint of what's coming. It's no exaggeration to say that once Taliban forces mass against the SEALs, the film becomes a real-time stream of nonstop, incredibly lifelike and ultimately soul-pummeling carnage.
In the early goings, the well-trained SEALs pick off scores of the enemy with blood- and brain-gushing head and upper torso shots. But as the fighting intensifies and everything from large-caliber mounted machine guns to rocket-propelled grenades are brought into the mix, we watch as our heroes get literally ripped to shreds.
The men take bullets and shrapnel to their legs, upper bodies and heads as the camera closely inspects stumps of blown-off fingers, a severed ear and bones protruding through flesh. We watch one team member fight to his last gasping breath—and then his corpse is mutilated with a bullet to the forehead.
More brutal punishment comes as the already wounded SEALs are forced to twice drop over sheer cliff faces―agonizingly smashing into trees, logs, rocks and boulders as they tumble down. A helicopter full of supporting troops is blown out of the air by a missile. The craft crashes in a ball of flame. Luttrell has to take a knife and perform surgery on his own grievous wounds, cutting out large chunks of life-threatening shrapnel.
Crude or Profane Language
Well over 150 f-words. We also hear a couple handfuls of s-words and a steady trickle of "b‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard," "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑." God's name is linked two or three times with "d‑‑n." Crude references are made to sexual body parts. A few rude jests are shared by SEALs, including a quip about watching their "c‑‑k and balls" around some of the mountainous dangers.
Drug and Alcohol Content
An Afghani smokes a cigarette.
Lone Survivor is a cinematic recounting of a real-life failed U.S. military operation. It took place in the mountainous Kunar Province of Afghanistan in June of 2005 and has since been called the worst tragedy in the history of the Navy SEALs―ultimately claiming the lives of 19 Americans.
Film director Peter Berg takes that tragic scenario, lifting the essentials from survivor Marcus Luttrell's memoirs, and creates an incredibly visceral, immersive and realistic depiction of the conflict. It's so life-like, gruesome and disturbingly brutal, in truth, that at times it's almost unbearable.
This isn't simply a critique of the hell of war, though. Nor is it strictly a protest of the United States' ongoing military efforts in Afghanistan. It's not just a one-dimensional bullet-blazing war flick about a handful of ravaged, obscenity-spewing soldiers.
You can find elements to support each of those perspectives if you're looking for them. But there's more than that here.
This is a movie that emotionally and caustically challenges us to think about the virtues of self-sacrificial brotherhood, service to country, honor and bravery. It lauds the ability of some to drive themselves to near-impossible levels of physical and mental toughness. And it shakes its cinematic head in awe over how men can willingly put themselves in harm's way to fight for freedom and justice, sometimes even when that freedom and justice is meant for foreigners they have no personal connection to.
The film also makes it clear that acts of humanity and decency are alive and well, even on the battlefield. And that those are not solely flag-waving American attributes. They are traits, it tells us, that are woven into the fabric of communities found in any part of the world. And they are traits that somehow manage to survive the stranglehold of violence that otherwise chokes Lone Survivor.