In June of 2005, during a firefight with Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan that would claim the lives of three of his fellow Navy SEALs, Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell broke his back. He broke his pelvis. He tore out his shoulder, bit his tongue in half and crushed his hand. He sustained facial bone damage, he was shot “through and through” his quads and his calves, his body was riddled with shrapnel from his ankles to his eyes…and he lived to tell the tale.
That tale was captured on the page in his 2007 memoir “Lone Survivor” and it has now been captured on the big screen by director Peter Berg with Mark Wahlberg in the starring role as Luttrell. A riveting depiction of the mission, called Operation Red Wings, the film eschews traditional structure and launches its players into the heart of darkness quickly before tearing through a 33-minute recreation of the firefight itself that recalls such nail-biting sequences as those captured by Steven Spielberg in “Saving Private Ryan” or Ridley Scott in “Black Hawk Down.”
At a post-screening Q&A tonight moderated by journalist Tina Brown, Luttrell, of course, received a standing ovation, his loyal golden retriever at his side. He told the audience matter-of-factly, completely unmoved by the Hollywood machine, about his ordeal and the toll it took. “I died up on that mountain,” Wahlberg says in voiceover as the film’s final moments flicker on the screen, and indeed, it was clear hearing Luttrell speak that he lost a bit of himself that day.
“The hardest part wasn’t getting back on the horse, so to speak, and going back into combat,” Luttrell, who after recuperating from his Afghanistan tour turned right around and re-deployed for Iraq, said. “That’s what we’re trained for. I didn’t have any mental problems. The only problem I had was when they released me, when I couldn’t do the job anymore. I think it was more along the lines of I was just bored. I missed the adrenaline and missed my buddies. That was the hardest hurdle to overcome. But my wife, I’m blessed to have her. She keeps me out of the shadows.”
During the mission, Luttrell and four of his comrades (played by Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch in the film) were discovered during a reconnaissance mission by local Taliban-loyal goat herders. With a compromised mission and a moral conundrum, the decision was made to free the locals and fall back while trying to re-establish communications with their base at Bagram Airfield. And Luttrell has plainly said that if he had the whole thing to do over again, he would have made a different decision.
“He’d much rather have been Leavenworth [prison], with his brothers alive,” Wahlberg said during the Q&A. That’s in fact part of the moral territory the film is attempting to navigate. “‘SEALs kill kids,’ that’s the CNN headline,” Wahlberg’s Luttrell pleads in the film. But war changes all the rules.
Brown attempted to dig in on the training the actors went through to prepare for their roles, but Wahlberg instantly doused it. “Anybody that sits up here and talks about how hard they worked, it’s bullshit compared to what they do for us and what they continue to do,” the actor said. And as someone who has played his share of real-life characters, whether boxer Micky Ward in “The Fighter” or football player Vince Papale in “Invincible,” the pressure to make the inspiration for the character proud was all the more apparent here.
Kitsch, who plays Medal of Honor recipient Mike Murphy in the film, echoed the sentiment, noting that it was more about capturing something intangible. “It’s really just the spirit of this guy and who he was and the legacy he’s left, who he was with these guys, these relationships,” he said.
Berg was first given the book when he was shooting the film “Hancock.” He said it’s difficult to get him to sit down and read a book under the best of circumstances, let alone while working, but he went into his trailer during his lunch break and started flipping through it. Soon enough he had locked the trailer door and read it cover to cover. Naturally, he was eager to meet Luttrell, but he needed to get in line.
Meanwhile, the director was finishing up post-production on the 2007 war film “The Kingdom.” After setting up a meeting with Luttrell he asked the soldier, whose career was finally brought to an end after blowing out both knees during his Iraq tour, to take a look at a rough assemblage to see if Berg was right for the job. “He told me at the end that he was going to give it to me and that I better not fuck it up,” Berg said.
For Luttrell, it was the “The Kingdom’s” attention to detail that sold him on Berg. “Normally when you watch a film, you get sucked into it,” he said. “You forget. ‘That’s not Mark Wahlberg. That’s not Taylor Kitsch. That’s so and so.’ If they’re good actors, they bring you into that. But when I watched ‘The Kingdom,’ I wasn’t paying attention to the actors. All I was watching was the attention to detail and how he portrayed the enemy. Attention to detail is such a big part of our community and our lives. That’s how he won it.”
Speaking of community, much of the discussion revolved around a sentiment you often hear from weathered war veterans, that it’s about forming a bond. It’s about the person standing right next to you as you go through hell together. “The only people who knows exactly what you are and what you’re capable of is the guy to the right and left of you,” Luttrell said. “I tried to explain that to one of the wives one time. She was sitting there crying – and I didn’t say this to her, obviously – but she was talking and saying, ‘You just didn’t know my husband like I did.’ And in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘I know your husband better than you. I know everything about him. I know what he smells like after day one as opposed to day two without a shower. I know how he moves in the dark. I know what he’s going to do, and not only do I know everything about him, I know everything about you.'”
You don’t really know who your friends are until you’re in a tight spot with them, Luttrell said. And the SEALs’ training, he said, is geared toward that very concept from day one. All of that is imparted in the film between this tight ensemble, that sense of intense loyalty.
The question for “Lone Survivor,” as it pertains to the business of this outlet, is whether it’s an awards movie or not. Universal Pictures announced in June that the film would be platformed beginning in late December before going wide in January in order to qualify for the Oscar race, but it seems a curious play. The film is a technical marvel in many ways, particularly aurally: the sound branch will certainly be considering it heavily. And the makeup, as well, depicting the gruesome effects of SEALs’ tribulations during the aforementioned firefight sequence is quite worthy. Berg deftly handles the material, too, though it’s hard to pin-point a stand-out in the ensemble. Foster was a personal favorite (also great this year in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”).
But while it hits some emotional beats at the end that could go a long way for some voters, “Lone Survivor” is not the sort of film to normally register with AMPAS. It’s a sterling monument to modern warfare, perhaps the most definitive big screen account of the war in Afghanistan to date (not that there is a huge crop to pull from), but it may have been a mistake to toss it into the race, where the bar of expectation is sometimes too high and the fight for attention at the box office can be even worse. Nevertheless, Universal will give it a shot and the first stop will be the film’s world premiere at AFI Fest on Nov. 12.
And awards film or not, none of that, of course, is to take away from Luttrell’s story, his valor or the cast and crew’s handling of it in the film. To say nothing of the bravery shown by a local village in ensuring Luttrell’s rescue due to their 2,000-year-old code of Pashtunwali, which I haven’t even touched on here. Those kinds of things register in far deeper and lasting ways than the tiny world we cover here on a day-to-day basis.
“Lone Survivor” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 27. It opens wide on Jan. 10.