Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Lone Survivor,’ A True Story of Navy SEAL Willpower

So what if it's possibly a Navy recruitment ad?
BY Mark Jackson TIMEOctober 2, 2020 PRINT

R | | Action, Biography, Drama | 10 January 2014 (USA)

“Lone Survivor” is Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s (Mark Wahlberg) harrowing, brink-of-death, true survival ordeal that re-creates the Afghanistan-based, doomed Operation Red Wings based on Luttrell’s book of the same name.

Why do U.S. Navy SEALs figure so prominently in our national consciousness? There are numerous reasons, but one word sums up our fascination succinctly: forbearance. A SEAL’s ability to endure pain and suffering is legendary. They’re chosen because the nature of SEALs is such that they’d literally rather die than quit anything. It’s an adamantine (also adamantium), diamond-like willpower.

two SEALS carry another SEAL in "Lone Survivor"
(L–R) Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, and Mark Wahlberg in “Lone Survivor.” (Gregory E. Peters/Universal Pictures)

It’s a quality that’s inherently linked to integrity, truthfulness, and accountability. SEALs (along with Army, Marine, and Air Force special ops communities) therefore have more of these qualities than the average man. But it’s that heroic, diamond-hard will that fascinates.

And that is why, since roughly 1990 when “Navy SEALS” (starring Charlie Sheen) debuted, they’ve become our favorite superheroes. We want to put them under a microscope and see if we can figure out how to get a little of that heroism to rub off on ourselves.

Operation Red Wings

Basically, four SEALs attempt to take out a head-lopping Taliban leader and get surprised by goatherds in the Hindu Kush mountain range. Heeding (with much agonized deliberation) the rules of engagement, they decide to let the goatherds go.

4 Navy SEALS and goatherds in "Lone Survivor"
U.S. Navy SEALs (L–R: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch), in “Lone Survivor.” (Gregory E. Peters/Universal Pictures)

Their mission now compromised, they decide to abort, try for higher ground to “get comms” (communication) and an Apache chopper extraction. But they reach a false peak (meaning they didn’t realize there was even higher ground the enemy can climb to and thus gain the tactical advantage). “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster) says, “This is a bad spot,” and we anticipate a “Butch Cassidy”-type massacre. The film’s title says it all, after all.

The goatherds, naturally, have fled down the mountain and immediately alert the Taliban. Soon it’s a four-against-a-hundred, SEALs-Taliban firefight, which takes an entire hour of the movie.

four Navy SEALS in a firefight in "Lone Survivor"
U.S. Navy SEALs (Emile Hirsch, front C) in a firefight with the Taliban, in “Lone Survivor.” (Gregory E. Peters/Universal Pictures)

During this time, more SEALs pile into helicopters for the rescue, one of which is destroyed by an enemy rocket-propelled grenade.

The third act is Luttrell being taken in by an Afghan villager and safeguarded according to the principle of “Nanawatai” (asylum), the second of the 10 tenets that make up the 2,000-year-old Afghan tradition called “Pashtunwali.” The Afghan tribesmen are prepared to defend this enemy guest to the death against their fellow Afghans, the Taliban.

But the Taliban, initially shooed away (with AK-47s) from attempting to behead Luttrell, are soon coming back for more.

Real SEALs

Not as exclusively as, but similar to, the all-active-duty-SEAL cast of “Act of Valor,” “Lone Survivor” uses real SEAL instructors and sneaks Marcus Luttrell himself in there, and gives him a line to say.

Mark Wahlberg did SEAL-like training to prepare. “Lone Survivor” is as authentic as Hollywood SEAL-ness gets. And this is probably as embedded in a special operations firefight as any of us civilians will ever get.

Director Peter Berg does a tremendous job of creating a “you are there” feeling, with ricocheting, sound-barrier-breaking rounds, rock-splintering RPG explosions, and SEAL-assisted scripting of real firefight lingo: “Left is not good! Right is good! Okay, right is not good!”

The most mind-boggling is the all-or-nothing retreat technique of flinging oneself willy-nilly off 40-foot cliffs, and body slamming and cartwheeling downhill to escape enemy fire. Teeth shatter, bones break. SEAL response? “That sucked.”

SEALS on a cliff in "Lone Survivor"
Taylor Kitsch (L) and Mark Wahlberg in “Lone Survivor.” (Gregory E. Peters/Universal Pictures)

Navy Recruitment Ad?

It’s easy to imagine that director  Berg and Universal Pictures are in cahoots with the U.S. Navy. Regardless of the fact that this is a true story (and that the impetus for bringing it to the big screen probably came from Marcus Luttrell alone), this sure looks like a big ol’ Navy recruitment ad. Peter Berg and Universal also made “Battleship” not long ago, the star of which (Taylor Kitsch) is also in “Lone Survivor.” “Battleship” was an unabashed Big Navy chest-beating horn-tooter.

“Act of Valor” could easily be viewed as glowing Navy propaganda, and “Lone Survivor” equally so. Put “Captain Phillips” in with this crowd too, since it features SEALs prominently.

While it might be an opportunistic “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” union of art and the military, definitely count on Hollywood to mine all these new book-writing SEAL authors for storytelling gold until the vein runs out. As mentioned, we can’t get enough of SEALs. It’s supply and demand. Are Navy recruitment ad-movies a bad thing? They’ve certainly all been entertaining—even the cartoonish “Battleship.” It’d just be interesting to know how much Navy funding was involved, if at all.

Navy SEALS rescue on of their own in "Lone Survivor"
Mark Wahlberg (in white), as Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell being rescued in “Lone Survivor.” (Greg Peters/Universal Pictures)

SEAL Lessons

The ironic thing with “Lone Survivor” is that it illustrates the futile aspects of war. Out of 20 top-flight operatives—one survives. Humans kill; no end in sight. Can war be stopped? Religion alone obviously can’t get it done. Paradoxically, it would take warrior qualities, as applied to religion.

That is, the SEAL-like quality of never-quit willpower. As applied to, say, turning the other cheek. Compassion backed by mental toughness. Outer warrior becoming inner warrior, warrior-soldiers becoming warrior-monks; swords to plowshares. But that’s for seekers on the path of enlightenment.

The reality is Richard Grenier’s famous quote: “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” And the forbearance, immense pain-tolerance, and ability to suffer, as demonstrated by SEAL warriors, can be something to learn from.

Real Navy SEALS
Navy SEALs operating in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (L–R) Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class Matthew G. Axelson, Senior Chief Information Systems Technician Daniel R. Healy, Quartermaster 2nd Class James Suh, Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell, Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Eric S. Patton, and Lt. Michael P. Murphy pose in Afghanistan. With the exception of Luttrell, the author of “Lone Survivor,” all were killed June 28, 2005, by enemy forces while supporting Operation Red Wing. (Handout)

‘Lone Survivor’
Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig, Yousuf Azami, Sammy Sheik
Rated: R
Running Time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Release Date: Jan. 10, 2014
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years experience as a professional New York actor, a classical theater training, a BA in philosophy, and recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook, “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World”:
Rotten Tomatoes author page:

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
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