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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.
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