It's difficult to process a movie where, as the great @FanSince09 put it, "heroic white guys who don't know a fucking word of Pashto make the heroic decision not to murder brown children." The scene he's referring to is the crux of Lone Survivor: a moral decision made by four soldiers on a mission in Afghanistan leads to a massive firefight and the death of 19 Americans. We've seen something like this on-screen a hundred times before, usually meant to remind audiences how civil our boys are in the midst of utter chaos (and how wild our foes can be).
But to writer/director Peter Berg's credit, he presents the scene factually -- as the catalyst for what's to come -- and not a rallying cry for our "superior" values. In fact, his propaganda overall is aimed in the right direction. There's very little, if any, discussion on the war in Afghanistan as a whole. There's a refreshing lack of praise for America's military decisiveness or our efforts to rebuild the world by blowing so much of it up.
Lone Survivor is ultimately about the four Navy SEALs (played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch) who, linked by their training and bound to their duty, desperately struggle to outlast a larger fighting force. It's not about winning or losing; it's about making it through the day in one piece. And Berg smartly separates that story from from the politics surrounding the situation, focusing on the SEALs and their remarkable drive, determination and love for each other.
He's also brutally honest; he does not paint his four leads as white knights who've arrived to save the country from evil. Their mission is essentially to assassinate a Taliban leader. They openly discuss their desires to kill every motherfucker who's keeping them from home; they're blunt, efficient war machines.
But that's something, as audiences, we should see. War isn't pretty or tidy; you hope that the soldiers we train and deploy will make all the right choices, but there are a bevy of gray areas to navigate in a war zone. At the end of the day, so much comes down to the ties that bind men and woman in the armed forces together, bonds that probably keep them sane. When you're fighting an unpopular supplementary war halfway around the world, I doubt you have much more to hold onto than each other.
If you've read about the real-life mission, you know that Wahlberg is the titular survivor. But all four men are given relatively equal backstory in the early going, which is mostly a mention of whether they're married or not (Kitsch has a mildly amusing subplot about buying his fiancée a horse as a wedding present). Berg doesn't waste time on sappy character development; just as much attention is paid to actual training footage that plays over the opening credits, depicting just how many soldiers wash out of the SEAL program (and how special the ones who make it through really are).
Berg's up-close, handheld style -- put to such good use on the Friday Night Lights TV show -- is again deployed here to full effect. You can't help but feel connected to each member of the team, absorbing every vicious gunshot wound or bone-crunching tumble they take down the mountains of Afghanistan. It accomplishes the heroic task of making them appear both invulnerable and overwhelmingly fragile; even as they push on through injury after injury, you know they aren't long for this world. Berg and the studio haven't been afraid of revealing (in trailers and other promotional materials, including, well, the name of the movie) that pretty much everyone dies, which makes it all the more tragic when they do go. You realize you've been waiting for it all along.
At the end of the day, Lone Survivor satisfies as a bloody, visceral war film for our generation. But it's more than that; it's a smartly intimate look at four men who exemplify the admirable traits we envision in our best and brightest serving overseas.