Heroism’s Ambiguities: A Review of the Film Lone Survivor

True horror in an actual Navy Seals mission impossible, amid ambiguous heroism.

Frank Farley, PhD
Temple University

Erinn Cosby, PhD student, Temple University

Director: Peter Berg

Lone Survivor is a 2013 film based on a real story of four American Navy Seals in Afghanistan who were on a special mission to kill or capture a Taliban leader Ahmad Shah in 2005 in mountainous areas.  They were part of a larger operation named Operation Red Wings. Of the four, only one survives, Marcus Luttrell, played solidly by Mark Wahlberg.  The basis for the film is a book written by Luttrell covering the training, bonding, deployment and ultimate tragedy.

The movie begins with the four Seals, and others, going through special training, while in Afghanistan.  There is the usual macho banter with some personalization of members of the Operation.  The four are air-dropped near the target area which is a compound where the Taliban leader is located.  They get close to the compound, above it on a mountain-side, observing through gun-scopes the movement below in the compound, complete with a sighting of the Taliban leader surrounded by Taliban soldiers.  In the midst of preparation for their take-down of the leader, an elderly Afghan goat-herder with two boys and several goats wander into the area of the mountain-side the four have staked out.  This totally unexpected and obviously unplanned-for intrusion requires them to capture and secure the three goat-herders.  One of the only moral discussions in the film, and a very fateful one, takes place among the four Seals.  One advocates killing the herders, arguing that if they let them go free they will inform the Taliban below in the valley of their whereabouts.  He particularly notes the look of the older of the two boys, perhaps in his early to mid-teens, as a future killer, a terrorist-to-be.  This boy does exude hate.  Marcus (Walberg) argues that Seals don’t kill prisoners.  Another Seal says let us leave them here tied-up and gagged and get on with killing the Taliban leader.  Discussion on this option turns on the likelihood the herders would die on the mountain if left under constrained conditions.  Finally, the commander of the mission orders the herders to be freed, resolving the rather thin moral debate.  The older boy promptly bounds quickly down the mountain to the Taliban compound below, watched fatefully by the Seals, clearly on a mission to inform the Taliban.  This prophetic decision is the turning point in the success of the mission, guaranteeing a quick end to the so-important secrecy of the mission, and raising the certainty of immediate armed resistance, and we ultimately learn the death of three of the four Seals.  The reasoning behind this pivotal action left out the likelihood that if the three herders had been left bound and gagged, they would probably have been found by searchers when all three failed to return later to the compound or their village.  And some of the goats would probably have remained in the general area, their presence aiding in the search.

Upon the older boy’s arrival at the Taliban compound, a massive lengthy assault on the Seals ensues, and the movie devolves into a pretty standard but prolonged and bloody fire-fight with a lot more Taliban shots than Seals.  At this point it’s not a movie for unsupervised children under 16.  One of us in a theater viewing the film noted the many children and adults cheering whenever someone was killed.  One key issue is the failure of the Seal’s communications equipment used in the attempt to bring in help, coupled with issues of authority and availability of helicopters for a rescue attempt back at base-camp.  Two Chinook helicopters with several Seals aboard are finally dispatched but without the essential air cover from Apache attack helicopters, and one Chinook is shot down by the Taliban, exploding with presumably all aboard killed, and the other Chinook quickly returns to base.  Any hope at this point of rescue is very remote.  This whole failed rescue effort and the failure of the Seals communication technology gives one pause about the famed invincibility of the U.S. Navy Seals!

Three of the four Seals are ultimately killed, but many more Taliban are killed.  Marcus escapes to a village and is accepted and concealed by the local family of Mohammed Gulab with the knowledge and complicity of others in the village.  This selfless act of the villagers is the clearest example of heroism in the film.  These villagers were giving sanctuary to an American combatant in a country divided between the foreign invaders, the homegrown Taliban, and the non-Taliban Afghan people, and they were siding with the foreigner.  Farley (2010) has proposed two broad categories of heroism, Big H and Small h heroism, the former referring to heroism with major risks, often life or death; the latter referring to small acts of kindness or empathy.  In Big H heroism, Farley argues for the primacy of two major factors—risk-taking and generosity/altruism.  The four Seals’ combat engagement certainly met the risk-taking criterion but was generous only in their attempts to save each other.  Their killing of many Taliban lacked at least an immediate sense of generosity!  The armed villagers who had taken Marcus in are ultimately attacked by the Taliban and a fire-fight ensues.  A member of the village had immediately upon Marcus’ arrival been dispatched on foot with a note from Marcus to rescuers at base camp.  This resulted in a full-scale armed rescue by the military, and the airlift from the village of Marcus, now the “Lone Survivor,” leaving the villagers to face possible future retribution by the Taliban for their heroic action.

The ambiguity of heroism in this film is that both sides of the story are out to kill.  Our side involves volunteer Navy Seals putting their lives on the line presumably for a noble cause. And their efforts in the battle to save each other are certainty heroic.  Some people however might argue that the act of slaughtering the Taliban in Afghanistan so as to presumably reduce the likelihood of terrorism back home in the U.S. falls short of the generosity of true Big H heroism and may be a debatable behavior at many levels.

The film depicts a true tragedy for four Americans and those on the downed Chinook.  It seemed that the tragedy might not have happened if communications equipment had functioned effectively, a surprising failure in the era of powerful satellite telecommunications and encryption, and additionally if U.S. military logistics had not failed (the Apache problem).  It is not always entirely clear from the film what actually happened.  There are some discrepancies between the film and Luttrell’s book as well as his December 8, 2013, interview on the CBS-TV program 60 Minutes.  One or two discrepancies were that he never went into cardiac arrest nor was he near death when rescued as depicted in the movie.  The Pashtun villagers where he was rescued never fought off the Taliban, with no climactic assault taking place as depicted at the end of the film.  When movies are inaccurate in presenting an historical event, reviewers must take note.

The acting is excellent throughout.  None of the actors among the four Seals stood out as better or more authentic than the other, including Wahlberg.  The film did not allow for much dialog that might have revealed the nuances of character.  It focused more on visual effects than on humanization and characterization of the principals.

It ends on a patriotic note with the sound track repeatedly playing a line from David Bowie’s song “Heroes,” “And we can be heroes, just for one day; And we can be heroes, just for one day.”

There are no new insights about human nature in this movie, and if our interest was not piqued because it is based primarily on a true story, we would have dismissed it as just another military engagement in a foreign land, a Special Forces film, an expensive-to-make depiction where the production monies expended could have been better spent on an uplifting film about, perhaps, the woundedwarriorproject.org, or provided as a Hollywood gift to those Big H heroic Pashtun villagers…


Farley, F., (2010, August).  Heroes and heroism.  Presentation at the meeting of the American Psychological Association, San Diego, CA.

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