Review: 'Lone Survivor' is Intense, Powerful, Fast-Paced War Drama
by Ethan Anderton
January 10, 2014
In a nation saturated by faux patriotism, a film about a brave group of US Navy SEALs on a mission gone awry could easily be nothing but propaganda with no display of human error or operations challenges. But with a firsthand account from Texas native Marcus Lutrell guiding the way, Lone Survivor from director Peter Berg (Battleship, The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights) is one of the most realistic portrayals of military action during the war on terror that cinema has ever seen. With cringeworthy warfare and a fast-paced, suspenseful second act, the film delivers what you expect from a war drama, for better or worse.
Based on Lutrell's book Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, the film stars Mark Wahlberg as the Lutrell, the tile singular SEAL left alive from the failed Operation Red Wing he embarks on with Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) to take out a Taliban target.
An opening credit sequence makes sure the audience understands just how tough Navy SEALs are, because the firefight they're about to endure will test their absolute physical, mental and emotional limits. Their rigorous training and brotherhood is shown in archive footage from real outposts right up until their graduation. From there, we meet our small band of soldiers, further solidifying the bond that exists between these deadly men. They bust each others' balls, but have the utmost respect for one another at the same time. Berg wants to make sure you're invested in these guys to make the solemn coda showing real pictures those who lost their lives in this operation at the end of the film.
The knowledge the audience has that Lutrell will be the only one to survive simultaneously adds a level of emotional investment in everything they do during these final moments, especially when speaking of their loved ones back home, but doesn't take away from the suspense as they try to survive the Taliban when their mission is compromised. The conversation about whether to release the civilians (including a teenage boy, younger child and old man) from the village housing their terrorist target explores all possible outcomes, and it's hard to watch Murphy make the call that will lead to the death of himself and his counterparts.
But nothing compares to the tremendous pain and pressure put on the group as dozens of Taliban terrorists descend on their location, in a second act that never seems to end. Small lulls in the action are quickly interrupted, and Wahlberg, Hirsch, Foster and Kitsch get increasingly bloody, battered and bruised. Some incredible make-up work really creates some teeth-gnashing moments, not to mention the several gunshots each soldier experiences in their extended battle. In these sequences, it's the sound that's almost stronger than the sight as bullets pierce flesh and blood get increasingly more brutal as these guys get in worse shape. It's almost sickening when they have to make a quick leap off the side of a rocky mountain, their bodies slamming and crashing into stone, trees and their own gear. It's pretty hard to watch.
It's within their battle that the film shows some of its flaws though. While Wahlberg, Hirsch, Foster and Kitsch all put in hard work to convincingly get their asses kicked, there's nothing particularly remarkable about either of their performances. In fact, any one of them could play the other's role, and the movie wouldn't be any different. That's not the fault of the actors though, and it may not be the fault of the writers. Maybe these were just four incredibly average guys and they're just being very loyal to Lutrell's story. None of them stand out, but maybe that's the idea when you're part of a unit like that. However, films like Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan (which this film has been compared to) didn't seem to have any trouble giving their characters a strong identity.
During these battle sequences, as intense as they are, some of the individual lines are about as close as we get to exaggerated, silly patriotism. One of Foster's lines stuck out in my head, "You can die for your country, I'm gonna live for mine." It just feels like it was written for a different movie, and nothing anyone would think of in heat of battle when your life is being threatened. And of course each member of the team killed gets their own slow-motion, hero moment to let their death sink in. Thankfully, most of the other melodramatic, sentimental moments don't last long and end up interrupted by an explosion or gunfire.
While the film loses some credibility for making nearly every turban-wearing, bearded foreigner an enemy (the number of which has been increased for dramatic purposes), it gains some for showing the shortcomings and mistakes some of the SEALs made that ended up being fatal for many. At the end of the day, this is a movie about those brave enough to take a bullet (or a few) for their country, and it doesn't aim to dance on their grave. But at the same time, it doesn't go over the top by glorifying war and violence. If anything, the amount of blood, carnage and pain on display, not to mention the actions of some surprising allies, are a strong argument against much of the blind patriotism and aggression some Americans feel.
Lone Survivor isn't perfect, and it's not necessarily comparable to Saving Private Ryan when it comes to well-rounded characters or cinematic quality. But the raw, hardened portrayal of war and making difficult decisions when lives, including your own, are in your hands is genuine and hard to swallow. Peter Berg has paid tribute to fallen heroes while still showing the ugly side of a war that many still find questionable. Berg has a tough time dancing the line between entertainment and the discomfort I can only imagine would arise if I were watching real soldiers at war.
Ethan's Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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