"Lone Survivor" pushes the envelope on how much brutality filmgoers can tolerate.
But of course, the unnerving experience of watching this film bears no comparison to the nightmare endured by its characters, most of whom - as the title indicates - did not make it to the end of this fight.
Based on Marcus Luttrell's bestseller, "Lone Survivor" recounts Operation Red Wings, in which four Navy Seals were hopelessly outnumbered by Taliban fighters when a 2005 mission went awry in Afghanistan.
Red Wings Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and Matt “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster) help Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) to safety in “Lone Survivor.”
An Afghani civilian shelters Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) in the film “Lone Survivor,”?based on a book written by the real-life Marcus Luttrell.
The film spares nothing as it takes us through their horrors - and it isn't just the blood and gore, though this indeed is frank and copious.
What hurts worse is the sight of these men - with no other escape - flinging themselves violently down rocky, wooded mountainsides, an ordeal filmed with gut-wrenching bluntness and brutality.
It's similarly tough to see them getting shot up, fighting on heroically in spite of ghastly wounds - especially when we know that only one will survive.
There came a moment when I wasn't sure I could go on watching - and I guess there's a question about putting viewers through so much grief; but if it really happened, and Luttrell himself served as consultant on the film, can we rightly complain about merely viewing horrors that other men actually had to endure?
Perhaps in a culture that has expended countless words on the tragic deaths of Paul Walker and Philip Seymour Hoffman, it's meet that we also acknowledge such soldiers, thousands of whom have died heroically with little or no public fanfare.
I guess the principal drawback here is that by forcing us to wonder if we can stand more grief, the film breaks its own spell and reminds us that we're watching a movie - kind of a no-no if you really want to put viewers through it.
Yet there's more to "Lone Survivor" than graphic content; it's also focused on relationships and the cost of compassion.
Red Wings was compromised when the men encountered local shepherds and had to decide whether to kill them or to set them free - in which case they would surely rat them out to the nearby Taliban base.
(Tying up the shepherds was not a separate option, as cold and wolves would have killed them in that case.)
Perhaps there was no braver moment than when the soldiers set these civilians free, knowing it would probably cost them their lives; and this is beautifully counterbalanced late in the film when a local Afghani shelters one soldier in his village - a move that proved not merely dangerous but deadly.
Though "Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty" were solid, "Lone Survivor" is the best film yet to emerge from the ongoing Middle East conflict: well acted, brilliantly filmed, thoughtful, authentic, impossible to forget.
If it makes us squirm, this at least confirms that most mere mortals could not endure what these men went through - a sobering lesson that ought to inspire our support and gratitude.
3 1/2 stars out of 4.
Rated R for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language.