Movie review: Brutal 'Lone Survivor' a tale of loyalty

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Almost the whole of "Lone Survivor" is like the first 20 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan."

Unflinching. Bloody. Brutal. And taking full advantage of advances in the past 15 years in special effects, makeup and cinematography to make it appear as if four Navy SEALs are under barbaric attack in the mountains of Afghanistan.

The mightiest tool of all may be the note appearing near the film's start: Based on a true story.

'Lone Survivor'

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana.

Rating: R for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language.

It's an exceptional tale of brotherhood, sacrifice, physical and mental endurance, the cost -- sometimes in human lives -- of doing the right thing, the demonstration of decency at the unlikeliest time and place and a reminder of just how young many members of the military are.

Even if director-writer Peter Berg took what the production calls "creative liberties," he was guided by retired Petty Officer 1st Class Marcus Luttrell, who chronicled his story in the 2007 book "Lone Survivor."

Mr. Luttrell moved into the filmmaker's house for a month to ensure he understood the ill-fated 2005 mission that would ultimately claim the lives of 19 SEALs and soldiers on the ground and in the air. He also served as an on-set consultant.

"Lone Survivor" opens with punishing physical exercises and the reminder: "You just proved to your bodies through your mind that you can push yourself farther than you thought possible."

That will echo through Operation Red Wing as four Navy SEALs head into a remote mountainous region in the Kunar province near the Pakistan border to capture or kill a Taliban leader believed to be nearby.

The four are: Petty Officer Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), a medic and a sniper; Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), the on-ground team officer; 2nd Class Petty Officer Matthew "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster), a navigation specialist; and Gunner's Mate 2nd Class Danny P. Dietz Jr. (Emile Hirsch), a communications officer and spotter.

None of them counts on accidentally running into three goat herders. The Americans, unable to reach their commanders hours and miles away, figure they have three choices: Kill the civilians (an old man, a boy and what appears to be a teen) and pursue their original target, responsible for killing 20 Marines the previous week; tie up the strangers and leave them to freeze to death in the mountains; or let them go and risk the Taliban discovering their position.

After briefly debating their options -- and mindful of the penalties and inflammatory "SEALs kill kids" headlines they could ignite -- they follow the rules of engagement, free the Afghans and seal their fate.

When the Americans are attacked, by 50 enemy anti-coalition militia fighters, they are outmanned, outgunned and outmaneuvered for the high ground. Rocket-propelled grenades are launched, fingers are shot off, bullets explode into heads, and the men violently bang down the rocky hillsides, adding bloody gashes and gouges to their other injuries.

Almost everything that can go wrong does, although "Lone Survivor" demonstrates the unwillingness of the SEALs to give up, on themselves, on each other, on the battle. As Mr. Wahlberg's character advises a wounded pal: Suck it up. "You're a [expletive] Frogman!"

Just when you least expect it, and probably don't yet understand it, an ancient code is invoked, providing a sliver of a lifeline amid the death and darkness. Stay seated as the story concludes and you will see an all-too-brief explanation along with photos of the real husbands, fathers, sons, brothers and boyfriends who died.

One of them, Lt. Michael Murphy, graduated with honors from Penn State in 1998. In October 2012, the USS Michael Murphy, a 510-foot destroyer, was commissioned in the name of the Long Island native who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

In some ways, "Lone Survivor" is as difficult to watch as "12 Years a Slave," with enough strong bloody war violence and pervasive language to easily merit its R rating. As with the story of the enslaved Northerner, this seems almost pornographic in its realistic depiction of the carnage -- the cost of watching a modern movie about events that happened a mere eight years ago.

Mr. Wahlberg has never been better, and he is ably supported by his co-stars, including Eric Bana as the commander of the operation. "Lone Survivor" is designed, in part, to pay tribute to the men who lost their lives although it must be agonizing for survivors to watch this dramatization.

It's a reminder that war is still hell, for the dying and the living and those blessed to only experience it through a television or movie screen.

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