Lone Survivor (2013) Pashtunwali in Action

If there was one critique I’m guilty of leveling against Peter Berg, it shall not be complacency nor comfort. Complacency to only take on “true life” projects and comfort from exclusively directing Mark Wahlberg in feature films. No, that charge is that I decided to watch Lone Survivor for its depiction of the Afghan/Pakistani code of honor known as Pashtunwali, and nothing else. Belonging to the Pashtun, whose ancestral home is split across Afghanistan and Pakistan, this time-honored tradition, from first glance, runs counterintuitive to being subject to Taliban meddling. But as one of its tenets, extending asylum to strangers, or fugitives regardless of crime, is perhaps the most confusing. The film is based on the memoir of one Marcus Luttrell, an autobiography boasting a recommendation by no less than the American Sniper himself.

Marcus Luttrell played by Mark Wahlberg

In lieu of cultural education, the film focuses more on the aftermath of a recon mission upon its immediate failure to launch, and that is no fault. Preceding that is the bonding routine from establishing set-up presented as the expected treatment to warm up the audience to the film’s principal characters, I suppose. Although nothing here is too smarmy to put one off, unless, one is to pause at the hazing ritual of one less senior member of the outfit. More time is really spent in the mayhem following the four-man SEAL team’s discovery by local goat herders. The highlight is a forty-minute action-packed gunfight that, as the title suggests, leaves but one man left to tell the tale. And tell the tale he did, with all the embellished braggadocio white hot jingoism is sure to inspire, but that is neither here nor there. The film counterpart is engaging without drumming up the unbridled fervor to overwhelm recruitment booths with long queues, and dot-mil servers with surging traffic. If anything, it was easy to empathize with both sides’ plight so propers are due.

For the non-initiated, perhaps some of the early passages of the mission could come as a shock when things go haywire. From my experience in remote geo-surveys, much is made of journey safety and proper amenities like ample water, satellite phones and spare tires, the accounting for which is a given in combat settings. The real surprise—for anyone unfamiliar with the book or the plot (guilty)—is how early the mission was doomed for failure. That a U.S. military branch would helm a mission without all their ducks in a row suggests a grievous lack of foresight and, or worse, the wrong intel. The SEAL’s encounter locals too deep into hostile territory to simply retreat; with broken communication and their target destination within site, the sensible approach is no longer viable. The quartet weigh the repercussions from releasing the shepherds, a contentious proposition from both the movie and book debated in forums afterwards. This scene reminded me of a documentary released earlier that same year, covering the consequences of one possible choice the SEAL’s avoid; killing the civilians.

Mark Wahlberg, as the titular soldier, proves adequate enough without needing to resort to chewing up any scenery or appeal to patriotic zeal. Across the board, the support acting is similarly competent with no mushy cues to accompany the fallen trio’s deaths. Perhaps, it was inadvertent that the film is all the better for simplifying the story, for the source material takes its liberties to amplify heroism. It is straightforward story of a fatal ambush with little emotional fluff. And, to a point, what creative license taken to prolong the drama ultimately pales next to the inclusion of integral parts; like the locals’ aide and hospitality to a soldier in a complicated conflict. The penultimate scene of Lone Survivor fails what was, otherwise, an acceptable cinematic approximation of a lengthier medium considering all limitations, so there goes. Nothing that a little epilogue explaining Pashtunwali won’t fix, so there’s that.

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