Lone Survivor is an American war film written and directed by Peter Berg. Based on the 2007 nonfiction book of the same title by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell (co-authored with Patrick Robinson), the film dramatizes a failed U.S. Navy SEALs counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan that turned into a desperate struggle for survival.
On 27 June 2005, in the fourth year of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military launched Operation Red Wings, an attempt to capture or neutralize Ahmad Shah (1970–2008), a dangerous Taliban leader. The operation involved first inserting a four-man Navy SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team into Shah’s home territory, the Korangal Valley, to locate him. Unfortunately the mission quickly went awry when the SEALs ran into local herdsmen, who alerted the Taliban to their presence. The team was subsequently ambushed and all were killed—except for USN Petty Officer 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell, who was eventually rescued, but not before another eight SEALs and eight Army Airborne SOAR troopers died trying to reach the battle site when their helicopter was shot down by the Taliban. Avid to publish his own account of the disastrous mission, he hired a lawyer and searched for a ghost writer. Luttrell’s lawyer connected him with Ed Victor, literary agent to the stars, who also represented Patrick Robinson, a 66-year-old British novelist specializing in maritime thrillers, including novels about Navy SEALs. After Luttrell hired Robinson, the two men met four times at Robinson’s summer home on Cape Cod to hash out Luttrell’s story. According to Motoko Rich, “Between visits Mr. Robinson, who never used a taped recorder, typed chapters on his computer, adding researched material and filling in facts that Mr. Luttrell couldn’t remember but that could be corroborated from other sources. The core of the book—the battle and the rescue—relied entirely on Mr. Luttrell’s memory” (Rich, 2007). Over a four-month period Robinson produced a 135,000-word manuscript, the U.S. Navy reviewed and approved it as accurate, and then Robinson and Luttrell met with five publishers in New York to pitch the book. In an auction Little, Brown and Company won the contract for a seven-figure advance and rushed the book into production. Meanwhile Luttrell returned to active duty and shipped out to Iraq as part of Navy SEAL Team Five during Operation Iraqi Freedom—until further injuries forced his medical discharge from military service on 7 June 2007. Five days later, Little, Brown and Company published Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing [sic] and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10. Showcased on NBC’s The Today Show and touted by right-wing media pundits Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin, Lone Survivor went on to become a national bestseller. Motoko Rich’s aforementioned review was laudatory, but Rich went on to note, “Along with the tragic story about how Mr. Luttrell lost his comrades, the book is spiked with unabashed braggadocio and patriotism, as well as several polemical passages lashing out at the ‘liberal media’ for its role in sustaining military rules of engagement that prevent soldiers from killing unarmed civilians who may also be scouts or informers for terrorists.” After it reached No. 1 on bestseller charts, Lone Survivor touched off a second bidding war in August 2007, this time between Universal, Warner Bros., DreamWorks, and Sony for the film rights, which Universal won, buying the property for $2 million up front, plus 5 percent against adjusted gross in a deal brokered by Ed Victor and Hollywood super-lawyer Alan U. Schwartz of Greenberg Traurig. Eager to make Lone Survivor, Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) secured a deal with Universal by agreeing to direct Battleship (2012), a big budget sci-fi film that turned out to be a critically panned box office bomb. Berg also agreed to direct Lone Survivor for the minimum fee allowed by the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) and convinced his principal actors—Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, and Eric Bana—to work for reduced pay. Berg wrote the screen adaptation of Lone Survivor in close consultation with Marcus Luttrell, whom he had cultivated early on.
The 42-day shoot on Lone Survivor took place in October and November 2012 in New Mexico to take advantage of a 25 percent state tax credit. The initial eight days of filming occurred at locations in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Santa Fe National Forest—mountains ranging from 11,000 to 12,000 feet that doubled for mountains in the Hindu Kush between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Production then moved to Chilili, New Mexico, for two weeks, where wooded areas were used to film several battle scenes. Berg’s art department built sets to simulate an Afghan village occupied by Ahmad Shah’s Taliban insurgents, as well as the Pashtun village where Luttrell is finally rescued. The shoot then moved to Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque, which doubled for scenes set at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. The shoot wrapped up on sound stages at I-25 Studios in Albuquerque for bluescreen work and interior scenes (e.g., Gulab’s house and Bagram Airfield’s patrol base Camp Ouellette). Peter Berg’s director of photography, Tobias Schliessler, shot the film using Red Epic digital cameras and Fujinon and Angénieux lenses. Marcus Luttrell and several other Navy SEAL veterans were on set throughout the production as technical advisors, while multiple branches of the U.S. military lent their support.
In Afghanistan, Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami) is the man behind the destruction of over 20 American Marines, along with villagers and refugees who assisted the U.S. troops. A U.S. Navy SEAL team is tasked with capturing Shah. Four SEALs are dispatched to locate their target: team leader Michael P. “Murph” Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), snipers Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), and communications specialist Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch). The team is dropped into the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan but soon encounters communications problems, which will plague the mission. When they arrive at their rendezvous point, the SEALs are spotted by a shepherd (Zarin Rahimi) and two young goat herders (Rohan Chand and Daniel Arroyo). After talking it over, the team decides not to kill the shepherd and herders and to abort their mission for the time being. However, as they turn back, Taliban fighters discover them and open fire. The team kills some of the attackers, but is quickly outnumbered. All four SEALs are wounded during the firefight, and they are forced to jump from a cliff into a ravine to escape the insurgents. They survive and press on through the woods in retreat. Dietz, near delirious due to his wounds, begins shouting and gives away the unit’s position. The Taliban forces shoot and kill him. Murphy attempts to scale the cliff to find a phone signal to radio for support, and he successfully makes a call for backup before being killed by the Taliban fighters. After receiving Murphy’s call, a rescue team is put in place and takes two CH-47 Chinook helicopters to the SEALs’ location. During the attempted rescue, Taliban fighters gun down one of the helicopters, killing all on board. The second helicopter is forced to turn back without Luttrell and Axelson. Axelson dies attempting to find cover, and when the Taliban find Luttrell, a fighter fires a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Luttrell is blasted into a rock crevice, where he takes shelter. He submerges himself in a small pond, and when he surfaces, he is greeted by a local Pashtun villager, Mohammad Gulab (Ali Suliman), who takes Luttrell in and hides him while a fellow villager travels to an American air base for help. In the meantime, Taliban fighters come for Luttrell, but the villagers come to his aid. American troops arrive in helicopters, decimate the Taliban, and evacuate Luttrell back to base. The film ends with a four-minute montage, showing images of the real-life Marcus Luttrell, Mohammad Gulab, and the 19 U.S. soldiers who died during the mission. An epilogue states that the Pashtun locals assisted Luttrell as part of their code of honor.
Lone Survivor premiered at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles on 12 November 2013 and went into wide release on 10 January 2014. The movie proved to a box office hit; during its 17-week domestic run (widest release: 3,285 theaters), Lone Survivor grossed $125 million. Foreign ticket sales totaled $29.7 million, making for a total gross of $154.8 million. Reviews were, however, mixed, and some, like David Edelstein’s, were highly critical. Edelstein especially faulted Peter Berg for not widening the geopolitical perspective: “The film doesn’t link the absence of air support and the near-total failure of communication in the mountains to an administration that diverted personnel and precious resources from Afghanistan to the catastrophic occupation of Iraq, leaving men like Luttrell with a tragically impossible job. Nor does it suggest that one reason good guys like Luttrell and his team had such a difficult time winning ‘hearts and minds’ was that at places like Bagram … prisoners were being tortured to death by U.S. interrogators in the service of Dick Cheney’s ‘Dark Side’ manifesto. Instead, Berg leads you to the conclusion that these Americans were just too good, too true, too respectful. Luttrell’s operation—and his team’s lives—might have been saved if they’d summarily executed three passing goat-herders rather than following the Rules of Engagement … Lone Survivor is a brutally effective movie, made by people who think that they’re serving their country. But they’re just making us coarser and more self-centered. They’re perpetuating the kind of propaganda that sent the heroes of Seal Team 10 to their deaths” (Edelstein, 2014).
Reel History Versus Real History
According to Ed Darrack, author of Victory Point: Operations Red Wings and Whalers—the Marine Corps’ Battle for Freedom in Afghanistan (2009), Patrick Robinson’s book, Lone Survivor, contains some serious inaccuracies, omissions, and exaggerations. Darrack writes, “The (very gripping, yet extraordinarily unrealistic) narrative of a small special operations team inserted on a lonely mountain to not just surveil, but to take down the operations of one of Osama bin Laden’s top men—who had hundreds of fighters with him—continued to propagate throughout the media” (Darrack, 2011, p. 62). In an exhaustively researched series of articles at their website OnViolence.com, Michael and Eric Cummings detail the film’s numerous falsehoods. Early in the movie, Axelson (Ben Foster) claims that Ahmad Shah killed 20 Marines in the week before Operation Red Wings, but official casualty records show that the United States did not lose 20 Marines during that period. In the film, Marcus Luttrell literally dies of his wounds and is resuscitated by medics. In his book, Luttrell recalls that he was not in mortal danger when rescued but “reported stable and unlikely to die” (p. 352). The movie depicts Luttrell as having Ahmad Shah in his gunsights at one point. In the book, Luttrell and the SEALs never see Shah, much less aim at him. In the film, Shah’s lieutenant, Taraq (Sammy Sheik) comes to the village, grabs Luttrell, and is about to behead him when he is driven off at the last minute by the local villagers firing their AK-47s. In reality, none of this happened; a wounded Luttrell was beaten by Taliban fighters but not threatened with beheading. In the film, Luttrell withstands excruciating pain when he extracts a bullet from his own leg with a knife. This never happened; in reality the bullet went through and through. The movie ends with the villagers of Kandish fending off a massive Taliban attack. The prosaic reality is that there was no attack and ensuing firefight; to scare the villagers, the Taliban merely fired into the air because they couldn’t afford to lose their support. In the film, during the final (mythical) battle in the village, Marcus Luttrell stabs a Taliban attacker with a knife. In a radio interview with NPR host Rachel Martin, Luttrell admitted that he “didn’t kill anybody with a knife. And I remember sitting back and laughing. I go why did you put that in there? What does that have to do with anything? I mean, the story itself, I think, is enough to where you wouldn’t have to embellish anything” (NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, 12 Jan. 2014). In the scene melding with the attack on the village, the American military arrives with gunships routing the Taliban and airborne troopers descending from helicopters. In reality, Luttrell’s rescue was far less cinematic; U.S. Army Rangers found him in the forest, walking back to the village with Gulab.