20 January 2014

FWS Movie Review: LONE SURVIVOR (2013)

Bring real stories of valor under fire has been a trend in humans since we could express language. Some deeds are drawn on the cave walls, some are remembered in tales written by Homer, and in today's media, the almighty "based on true events" war movie is how many of us witness the heroism of warfighters. In my lifetime, I've seen every major war movie and action film there is, and since 1986's Platoon, the genre of the war movie has changed with more realism and less glorification of the horrors of war. Both Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down have reshaped the genre, creating a template for the current realistic war film, and 2013's Lone Survivor  is part of that seachange. The Navy SEALs have also been receiving more attention lately due to high-profile operations and the recent Act of Valor film. Directed by Peter Berg and starring Mark (don't call me Marky ) Wahlberg, this film is based on the events of late June in 2005 in Afghanistan, which was one of the largest loss of lives for the Naval Special Warfare community since WWII, and tells the story of a four-man SEAL recon team during Operation: RED WINGS. In a recent interview, former SEAL and author of the book that this movie was based (and fellow Texan), Marcus Luttrell said that film Lone Survivor: "it keeps the memory of my teammates alive forever." That is the most important element to remember while reading this review and the movie, it is a video testament to those men that were lost on that day of June 28, 2005. Both the SEAL recon team and the soldiers and sailors onboard the MH-47 on Turbine 33. I saw this film in Dallas with my wife on January 18th, 2014.

Operation: RED WINGS
First off, the name of the Operation is RED WINGS, not Red Wing. It was named by Marines of the 3/3 after the Hockey team. Operation: RED WING was a series of nuclear tests done in the south Pacific in the mid-1950's The goal of the operation was to stabilize the region for the upcoming September elections, moving the Afghan government towards republican-style democracy and prevent disruption by local anti-coalition forces; like the local Kunar Province militia leader, pro-Taliban, pro-AQ, Afghan named Ahmad Shah, operating in the Korengal Valley. He was one of the focuses of the operation headed up the 2/3 and 3/3 Marines. These Marines had already performed successful operations in the area prior to Operation: RED WINGS. Since the operation was being planned by Marines, they were originally going to use RECON Marine units for the surveillance duties of intel gathering and ID'ing Shah. With the spirit of everyone getting a piece of the operational pie, the SDVT-1 and SEAL Team 10 expressed interest in some of their assets being involved with the operation.
The first stage of the operation was for a four man SEAL recon from SDVT-1 where to get eyes-on intel gathering of Shah's group, ID Shah and their AO. During the second phase of RED WINGS, a joint Marine/SEAL unit would capture or kill Shah and his men. The operation never got to phase 2 out of the five stage operation. After the loss of Turbine 33 with 16 souls aboard, and three of the four SEALs, Operation: RED WINGS altered from the original goals. Operation RED WINGS II and WHALERS would follow to meet the goals and recover the bodies of the fallen. It was during the joint Maine/SEAL Team 10/160th SOAR operation of RED WINGS II, that Marcus Luttrel was recovered from a Pashtun village some 0.7 miles from the battlesite on Sawtalo Sar. The odd thing was that Ahmad Shah gained more popularity and draw from the operations than he had, he also video'ed the battle, and his men recovered the SEALs gear, weapons, and laptops with some sensitive information on it. Before he could make much of his new found fame, Shah was driven into Pakistan to regroup after being wounded during the August of 2005 Operation: WHALERS, and his group of "Mountain Tigers" were crushed. This shit stain was killed in a shoot-out with Pakistan Police in April of 2008. Even today, there is controversy over the number of hostiles. Figures range from as little as 8 to all the way to unrealistic 200. Most believe that the SEAL Recon team was engaged by about 20-35.

I'll be honest here, I did not think that Peter Berg had it in him to give Lone Survivor and the fallen heroes of Operation: RED WINGS their due credit, but he did. Lone Survivor is Peter Berg's most serious and best work, and he balances the chaos of the mountain battle with the SEALs...well...being SEALs and men in wartime attempting to live their lives. There are some amazing shots and he uses the New Mexico mountains with all their angelic light to full extent. Instead of a puff piece that is a thinly veiled recruiter film for the US military, Berg channels Black Hawk Down and Tears of the Sun in the best possible way, but also creates an interesting and original opening to Lone Survivor.
To give the audience a frame of reference for the endurance and mindset of a Navy SEAL in case all you've ever met is internet wanna-bes posing as a SEAL, he included actually footage of sailors at BUD/S, culled from different classes to setup what it takes to be a SEAL. Also helping the realism angle of the film is actually Navy SEAL advisers, including Marcus Luttrel (who is in the movie...watch for him!), and the commitment of the core four actors to get their parts the honor due. This might be Mark Wahlberg's best performance.
Most average film-goers will take away the heroic deeds, the bond of military brotherhood, and the chaos of the mountain battle, which are all reasons that 2/3 of Lone Survivor is a great "based on real events" war film. However, to me and others that have studied the events of June 28th, 2005, the real center and heart of the film is the debate between the four SEALs on what to do with the Afghan civilians that walked into their hide spots. After this scene, all hell breaks loose, and Berg expertly filming the combat scenes with realism and chaos needed. Once again, this is no puff piece. SEALs are engaged in heavy fire in a bad tactical position in bad terrain to fight a pitched gun-battle. The feeling and intensity of these combat scenes are captured without cheapening the gravity of the situation...

While watching this movie with my wife, I firmly believed that there would be nothing for me to place in the bad or even ugly sections of the standard FWS movie review format...boy, was I wrong! Due to the last 1/3 of the film being so wrong to the spirit of the Lone Survivor project, I could only bring up a few bad elements in the excellent 2/3 of the picture...and most of these bad points are nitpicky at best. During the massive mountain battle, the actor portraying Matt Axelson pulls out his sidearm and engages hostiles at close range...the only thing is that the pistol is NOT the standard Navy SEAL Sig Sauer P226 9mm, but is instead the US Army's standard combat pistol, the Beretta M9. WTF?! How could the advisers on the film get that element wrong? Hell, even me, some REMF geekboy, knows that shit! I've studied Navy SEAL pictures for years, and only a few times have I seen a SEAL firing a Beretta...that was more in the 1990's, than today.
There is a scene depicting anti-coalition milita leader Ahmad Shah and one of his henchman, beheading an rumored American collaborator in a village over a log in front of his son. Why is this in the movie? Most audience already know that semi-Taliban and AQ terrorists are bad dudes...it wasn't needed especially since it doesn't seem to be true. There should have been a better way to introduce Ahmad Shah that didn't scream fake as a hooker's smile, and he could examined Black Hawk Down instead of playing to the cheap seats. Also, the quote about shitbag Ahmad Shah killing 20 Marines is completele false. At that point in the war in Afghanistan, there had only been a TOTAL of FIVE Marines lost. Another thing that bothered me was when talened actor Eric Bana's character gets the name of the operation wrong. He calls it "Red Wing" instead of "Red Wings".


Simply put, the last 1/3 of Lone Survivor did not happen the way that it presented on-screen. That is according to the official accords of the events and the book. While the genre of "based on true events" films almost always takes licences with how the events transpired, they general attempt to say true to the major events and spirit of the events. That is not true here. The best way for me to describe the ending of Lone Survivor without the spoilers is by bring up Black Hawk Down. After the October 3-4, 1993 battle,  CWO-3 Michael Durant was captured by the gunmen working for Aidid, he was held for 11 days, until released to the Red Cross. Now, if Black Hawk Down did what Lone Survivor did, they would HAVE twisted the ending, showing after the battle, DELTA operators Hoot and Sanderson tracking down Durant and rescuing him in a epic firefight. That is how wrong the ending of this film is. While I watching the film, I commented to my wife that none of this happened, and it completely broke my emotional involvement with the characters and the events on-screen.  The shame is that the actual events of the four days that Marcus was in the village of Sabari-Minah are more compelling this tacked-on over-the-top revenge fantasy ending. One of my friends at work, Tucker, commented that the false end of the film could have been a requirement of the financial backers of the film.

Do you want to know more? Than here it is...in all of its spoiler goodiness! According to the real events, after the bloody mountain battle, Luttrell is on his own, and searching for water desperately. He comes upon a waterfall and takes two drinks until an Afghan man yells at him, Luttrell pulls his sidearm and an grenade. That man is Gulab, a local shepherd from the small village of Sabari-Minah, shows him that he has no gun and is not Taliban. Over the course of four days, they move Luttell from houses, to stables, and even a cave to hide him from Shah's men, who knew that the SEAL was in the village of Sabari-Minah (I've seen it called Salar Ban as well). Gulab took great personal risk aiding the wounded SEAL, and later, his home burned down and a cousin was killed over Gulab's decision. Luttrell was lucky that he was found by people from the Shuryek Valley, who were more friendly towards the Coalition. The note that Luttrell wrote was given to the Marines at a base in the town of Nangalam by Shina, and this led to his rescue. During Lutrell's stay in Sabari-Minah, Shah's men did come into the village and threatened the village and Gulab, but unlike the movie, Luttrell was never almost beheaded on a log, nor did he kill an militaman with a knife during a pitched gun battle in the village. And there was no heroic battle where US forces with Apache gunship and an AC-130 drove the enemy from the village...all 100% fake.

Should You See Lone Survivor?
I think given what really happened on June 28th, 2005, along the bravery of the men involved with Operation: RED WINGS, and the excellent nature of 2/3 of the film, Lone Survivor is worth seeing. It will be one of those war movies that is talked about in the ranks of Black Hawk Down, and the majority of the film is worthy of that praise. Despite my misgivings about the ending, I will buy this on DVD, and watch most of it...just not the ending.


Jeremy Jahns's Lone Survivor Review

The 60 Minutes Interview with Marcus Luttell (Part One)

The 60 Minutes Interview with Marcus Luttell (Part Two)


  1. Just an aside. I was on Operation "Red Wings". After every thing went pear-shaped my company. Charley company 2-504 got sent it for support. I was a 240gunner/RTO. meaing I carried the tripods ammo, and radio and was sent up to the crash site in support of are 3rd platoon.
    Spent 3 weeks up there, sifting through wreckage to find remains. Then had to walk off that hill and wait a week for exfil because they forgot that we were up there!
    But I will say that most of us on the op actually referred to it was operation "Red Wing"
    I a haven't seen the movie and am kind of disappointed that they took Hollywood liberty's with it. But what do you expect. the action depicted in black hawk down took place in 3 sperate operations.

    1. if i remember correctly , the operation is USMC and SEAL are just recon element inserted at the start of the op.

      the movie didnt even bother to show the marines side of operation , and they also inserted that fake "this taliban bad dude killed marines" BS

  2. I was hoping that you would comment on this review! Thanks for the inside information and your experiences in conjunction with the events in the film. So, is the location in the film (New Mexico) close what you saw up there?
    Thanks for your comment and service.

    1. The movie review is spot on especially the last part .. to be honest the scriptwriter should seek additional info from Ed Darack and his excellent book covering the operation from USMC side , not the fake book ghost written by action fiction writer..

      the inexperienced SEALs are caught by heavy weapons ambush and they are slaughtered in situ , theres no running firefight , no taliban casualties , no hundreds of them since it is impossible to move hundreds of talibans in that terrain without detection..

  3. surprisingly yes. That area was actually very green, with ferns and trees just about every place you looked. Especially when compared to Gardez, Gozney and Kabul. Where I spent most of my time in country. That is actually one reason why I move to Vegas when I got out. I find that I like the desert.
    Also the saddle where we set up camp, were there Exfil site was is filled with stinging nettles. And there were troops of indigenes monkeys that stood over 4 feet tall that would shadow are patrols and set off are trip flares at night. We took to calling the place "monkey mountain"
    And just to let every one know, I am not trying to steal any ones thunder or say look at me I am a bad ass. Just saying I was there.

  4. As a history major, I always like to hear 1st person accounts and primary sources on events that are fictionalized. That trip flare story reminds me of PREDATOR with the pig...love that movie. Thanks for the comment! I've always wanted to see Afghanistan...maybe because my family is from New Mexico?

  5. I really did not have a camra with me on that op, but I have a few pics from "Red Wings" I will post some up on my Blog tomorrow then.

  6. I think the future idea of space dropships would be done a bit different. I am trying to write story about Supercarriers (lets say advanced naval battleship mixed up with carrier, something bigger than battlecruiser) onto small habitable moon (let's leave the astronomical and habitable zone matters), so here is the idea:

    Spaceship arrives with cargo that is that supervessel (think of mothership) to be dropped onto planet surface (water here). That big vessel is protected by capsule-like armor during atmopheric entry that is dropped away after critical point of planetfall. Such vessel during whole operation has all equipment and arms inside, systems are rather off-line and so, every stuff inside is secured and there is no crew onboard. The only flaw is that would require rather "peaceful" situation and the crew has to be delivered during second run.

    In my story however, both vessels are dropped onto a new, oceanic-like (with small archipelagos) moon that does not have any civilisation nor sentient species.

  7. Toda la película pensé que el sobreviviente iba a ser el primero que había quedado en la montaña.Tal vez por que no preste mucha atención al comienzo.Es una coincidencia que Marcus sea un nombre de alguien en Terminator 4 , que habla ficticiamente de eventos surrealistas con coincidencias notables con la realidad .Muy buena película.Lo que no querían los norteamericanos en 1991 por la finalización de la situación de Irak por ese entonces lo consiguieron algunos moviendo los hilos para que la situación continúe desde una estructuración psicológica modificando datos , relaciones y asociaciones lícitas.Me pregunto si todo esto no es culpa de la psicología y si esta tiene que dar un paso al costado para dejar que una ciencia verdadera sea en su lugar y defina las cosas un poco mas sanamente.

  8. ¡Muy buena trama! Una propuesta bélica basada en hechos reales dirigida con eficacia visual por Peter B. Un drama con una especie de estudio sobre la condición humana en una guerra, o sea, en una situación límite. Sin embargo, en manos del director Berg resulta lo que él mejor hace: cine de acción, de mucha faena, donde lo bélico es solo el paradigma de dicha acción. Dije que el filme se basa en hechos reales. Lo único es que están visualizados de tal manera que más parece un capítulo de Misión imposible en un campo de batalla, con cuatro soldados de Estados Unidos, diseñados como superhéroes, contra un montón de talibanes en Afganistán, estos tan torpes como crueles. Por otra parte El sobreviviente, tenemos un culto enfermizo a la guerra, deslizado aún entre sus situaciones más duras. Esto le da un espurio tono épico a lo narrado: la guerra nos da héroes cuya base se sustenta en matar y matar a más y más humanos. Solo falta portar un ábaco para llevar registro.

  9. Here is the translation: "Very good plot! A military proposal based on real events directed with visual effectiveness by Peter B. A drama with a kind of study of the human condition in a war, that is, in an extreme situation. However, in the hands of the director Berg is what he does best, of a lot of work, where the military is just the paradigm of action films such action. I said that the film is based on real events. The only thing is that they are displayed in a way that looks more like an episode of Mission Impossible in a battleground, with four US soldiers, designed as superheroes against a lot of Taliban in Afghanistan, such as awkward as cruel. Moreover Survivor, have an unhealthy cult of war, yet slipped through his toughest situations. This gives a spurious epic tone to the narrative: the war gives us heroes whose base is based on killing and killing more and more humans. Just need to carry an abacus to keep track."