Review: 'Lone Survivor' is Intense, Powerful, Fast-Paced War Drama

January 10, 2014

Lone Survivor

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.

Lone Survivor

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.

Lone Survivor

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
Follow Jeremy on Twitter - @JeremyKKirk

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Reader Feedback - 32 Comments


Taylor Kitsch is finally in a good film? Well I have to see this to believe it. Definitely looking forward to seeing Lone Survivor. War films are always a great cinematic piece of history to enjoy.

Damon King on Jan 10, 2014


Exactly what I thought about Kitsch when I saw this.

IamSlave on Jan 10, 2014


What? Did you guys not see his turn as Gambit in X-Men OrigHAHAHA. Damn. Thought I could keep a straight face.

SkylerB619 on Jan 10, 2014


I thought he did a great job in Savages, that's a hugely underrated film IMO.

thejon93rd on Jan 11, 2014


What, exactly, is "faux patriotism"...and how does it have any relevance to this review?

txJM on Jan 10, 2014


Its cool to hate on patriotism.

Brian Sleider on Jan 11, 2014


I really liked it, didn't think I would. The scenes with them falling were brutal, worse than the ones with them getting shot. Strange thing is war.

Carpola on Jan 11, 2014


My father read it, said the story is incredible. Heavy.

Nick Sears on Jan 11, 2014


Patriotism is a hollow and shallow endeavor designed for frightened human beings who need something grand to bow before. I was a Drill Sgt. in the Army during the Viet Nam conflict and it seems nothing has changed. We still need false heroes to fantasize about; men who are ignorant beasts who want to 'kill for their' country are just dumb frightened men who want to kill within what's deemed acceptable to the culture on the whole. Until and unless you serve in the military you have no idea what the reality is. I don't know if I believe this guy who was the only survivor. I do know that once again America is in a country where it doesn't belong killing people and many of them or innocent civilians. Yea, yea...they are great guys for letting the goat herder guys go free only to be fingered and then all killed. Kind of stupid. I knew many, many guys who came back from battle in Viet Nam to be my assistants in training other young guys to go kill for their country. The stories they told me were not as glorified as this nonsense. One guy when he got his new auto M-16 was so impatient to see what it would do he just shot an innocent old Viet Nam peasant sitting against his grass hut; on auto fire ripping the old man to pieces. Now he was drinking daily to try to forget what he'd done. That was a very minor thing he did and saw being done by other young American heroes. You have no idea the savagery young guys commit when in war...none. This kind of movie is so false and manipulative it saddens me to see how crowds still flock to see this kind of nonsense and actually feel better when they exit the movie. We still love war and we still love to kill and we still love to be entertained by it like the days of ancient Rome. That's a sad fact and remember this guy was prompted to tell 'his story' by the higher command in the military. They want you to buy this crap so they can continue to do what they do and the masses do so they will continue on.

Bo on Jan 11, 2014


Guy says he was a drill Sargent, clearly an expert.

Brian Sleider on Jan 11, 2014


Help me out here please. Did the guy tell you he committed murder and you kept it to yourself, or did you hear 'stories' about a murder kinda like how John Kerry told congress about the 'raping and pillaging' by his fellow troops though he was a bit light on the specifics? And did you then report that 'story' to your superiors so they could act on it. Just curious.

Gnubbles on Jan 11, 2014


I doubt much would have been done about it at the time.

Carpola on Jan 12, 2014


The infamous 'My Lai Massacre' resulted in over 300 civilian deaths, but in only one conviction of a platoon leader who was found guilty of 22 murders and was handed a life sentence. He ended up serving only 3 and a half years house arrest. War crimes are taken very seriously in America....when committed by Germans and Japanese.

Cal J. on Jan 12, 2014


Right you are, Cal J. And it continues to this day. Now we have Drones that do this type of slaughtering of innocent civilians. And the military and the government lie to us telling us they only kill the bad guys...and way too many people actually still believe them. Thanks for your post. Peace.

Bo on Jan 12, 2014


You are exactly right, both of your posts. It saves me the trouble of responding to someone like Gnubbles who just does not want to know what is really going on. Also correct are Cal J. and Trey Wilson regarding their posts. At least more and more people are waking up from the deep sleep and that is encouraging to see. Peace to you all.

Bo on Jan 12, 2014


Go back to the thread and read Carpola, Cal J. and Trey Wilson's post and replies to my post. There are those of us who realize the truth and see war and the killings for what they are. it's time to grow up and wake up and see things as they are and not as you wish or think they are or as the proverbial 'they' tell you they are as they lie to you all the time. I saw it while a Drill Sgt. The military always lies to make itself look better...and I mean always!! I saw this for 2 yrs. and it woke me up. The military lies about the simpliest things and rearranges the numbers and scores, etc. to put itself in a better light. It was hard for me to believe, but there it was right in front of me over and over and over again. One would be a fool to ignore something as obvious as that and I'm no fool; not since my experience as a Drill Sgt. in the Army. And if one comes forward as Kerry did one only has to look at the reaction he got and still gets from people like yourself to know how fruitless an endeavor that is. Want the truth? The football player Pat T. was all gung ho patriotic and wanted to fight for his country...his own men shot and killed him! And the military lied about it attempting to make him a hero...but the truth came out. Can you handle the truth?

Bo on Jan 12, 2014


No answer, just more anti military crap and "I was a Drill Sargent" Again I'm asking- since you seem to have a highly developed sense of morality- did you report the murders you claim to know of or did you remain quiet? There is no time limit. You may have served in Vietnam I have no way of knowing,but reading your posts has my BS meter running overtime with you mate. And Kerry was and still is an arsehole, ask those who served with him.

Gnubbles on Jan 12, 2014


I hesitate to engage in a discussion with you Gnubbles as your sensibilities, intellectual level, and politcal beliefs seems a bit shallow, stupid, and just wacky. Report the murders? Like go tell Mommy that Jimmy kicked me on the playground? Just this question from you indicates your life experience level and being pretty nil. The guy was suffereing from what he had done, you dummy. We were drinking. He trusted me enough to tell me what he'd done and I listened with compassion and empathy. Ever heard of those terms? Why in the hell would I go 'tell on him'? You sound like a punk. Besides that, my first Sgt. and Capt. would have laughed me out of the office. You obviously have no clue as to the ways of men, the military, killing others and watching you buddies killed and maim. You really are naive. And yes, I was drafted and sent to Drill Sgt. school and within 8 months in was a buck Sgt. and was a full-fledged Drill Sgt. Since you are so ignorant to life and the military and buy into the horseshit Republican Conservative mindset you wouldn't have a clue how intense it was during the years I was in the service. I've no time for fools like you who misunderstand and live on the sidelines making judgments and pronouncements that have been programmed into you. Let's end this discussion here, buddy. I've no respect for people like you who hide and distort the truth and those of us who have lived it and still do. Go away...leave me alone. Your reply to this is of no interest to me and I'll delete it without reading it so don't waste your time.

Bo on Jan 13, 2014


The wiser people can easily see through the bullshit. But the wise are outnumbered by the dummies at a staggering amount. Hopefully the age of information changes that when more people are exposed to comments like these.

Broseph Brosullini on Jan 12, 2014


A very wise and truthful post, Broseph...thanks. It is a pleasant feeling to read posts such as yours and many of these others. I'm an old dog having been a Drill Sgt. for all of '67 and '68 and I've been lucky to see the changes. I must say, I thought I would be bombarded with hateful and ignorant and angry replies to my post. So again, thanks as you and these others have given me encouragement that the human race is beginning to wake up even though, as you state, the dummies outnumbered the awakened by a staggering amount. Miles and miles to go before one can rest, eh? Peace, man!

Bo on Jan 12, 2014


Saw it last night. Terrible. This was simply a cross between a war propaganda film and a recruitment video for the U.S. army. Like Michael Bay, Peter Berg has a series fetish of all things military. I wish these film makers would stop glorifying war and presenting these men as some type of 'saviors of mankind.' The whole reason we went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq were based on lies. Neither country had anything to do with 9/11. The majority of the hijackers were Saudis. And like Zero Dark Thirty, I find these movies to be a disgusting reflection of how our society worships the military industrial complex.

Trey Wilson on Jan 11, 2014


I think if that film encouraged young men to join the military they'd have to be pretty stupid. All the men in that film did was take a bit longer to die. The only reason he survived, at least from the film was from the kindness of a stranger. I get what you say about the military industrial complex though, as the song goes 'there's no profit in peace, so we gotta fight some more'.

Carpola on Jan 12, 2014


Just wanted to specifically respond to your well written post. I cannot add to what you've pointed out. I'm glad there are others such as yourself you see things the way you stated. Our society indeed worships the military industrial complex and it is disgusting. Thanks for voicing yourself in this discussion. Peace.

Bo on Jan 12, 2014


Thank you. I think there's a lot of people starting to wake up, but unfortunately we are still a minority. The average American still thinks Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. It makes me angry and also a little sad at how glib and apathetic we've become as a society when it comes to war. Iraq and Afghanistan are hell holes and our presence there has only made things worse - not better. Our brand of freedom and liberty always comes with death and destruction and human suffering. It's been happening since Vietnam. And Al-Qaeda never attacked us because they hate our freedoms and way of life. They couldn't care less about that. They attacked us because of our woeful foreign policy - which is effectively designed to start wars with poor countries who happen to have rich oil reserves. I travel quite a bit with my day job and I meet all kinds of people - Australians, British, Dutch, South Africans, etc. And they all see it. But we don't. Our country is so insulated from what is really going on in the rest of the world, and we continue to be spoon fed lies by our governments. I hope Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz all face justice for their war crimes one day. Although I doubt they ever will. They are protected by the very system they work for. Anyway, I felt this movie was beautifully shot and had some great action scenes. The sound design was also amazing. But as a whole, I can't recommend it because of the blatant masturbation Berg has for all things U.S. military. Oddly enough, I actually enjoyed Battleship more than this dreck.

Trey Wilson on Jan 12, 2014


Thanks again for this reply post, Trey. I just finished dealing with this Gnubble guy on this thread. Man, what a programmed fool he is. He seems to buy all the lies being spoon fed to him by the government and you can bet you life he has never, ever, served in the military. That's what fools like him do; he questions my two year experience as a Drill Sgt. It's the truth and has no meaning to me now at all; only as a very important and eye-opening life experience. He buys the lies, yet refuses to believe the truth when it is being told to him. Poor sod. So after wallowing in the mud with this guy and will not read any thing else he posts to me it felt cleansing to read this recent post of yours. I doubt I'll watch this film as I'm not a fan of Berg's sensibilities. Or Wahlburg's. Very minor minds and talents. Again, good to see guys like you posting and having the intelligence and the courage to see things as they really are rather than living the life of a programmed robot. Which is living a false life and not even knowing it. Man oh man, what a way to live. Thanks again, Trey.

Bo on Jan 13, 2014


I would have killed the goat herders.

Astroboy3000 on Jan 12, 2014


Does everyone forget this was based off a true story. My question is how do you know thats not how it happened. Were any of you there? no didn't think so. Read the book that the survivor himself wrote. who also helped out with the movie honestly if he didn't think it good enough or correct enough do you really think he would of allowed it pushed through and being about him he had every right to stop it if he didn't like it. Just saying that maybe you guys read to much into it when it comes to movies especially when they are based on real events.

Jeremy Young on Jan 12, 2014


While I don't think there was a lot of embellishment, there's still a bias angle when a story is told by someone who experienced it. Plus, the film still has plenty of dramatization with the other deceased men that Lutrell didn't experience himself.

Ethan Anderton on Jan 12, 2014


Alright now this is a comment i can agree with.

Jeremy Young on Jan 12, 2014


What I mean is I don't quite agree with your article full to me I see you bashing the film a bit but with this comment I actually can agree and see what you meant in the first place. And my comment wasn't fully towards you it was also to the other comments.

Jeremy Young on Jan 12, 2014


And how do you know that he's telling it like it really happened? How do you know that out of his guilt and shame he's painting a better picture of the whole thing in order to make himself and the others heroes which they may not have been. This kind of crap has happened through out history so guilt-ridden and cowardly men who commit acts of horror upon others make themselves out to be other than what they really are. I'm not saying that's the case here, but I sure as hell ain't buyin' this load of flag waving, hero creating nonsense as the truth. For all I know they killed the goat herders, that's what most guys in combat would do rather than commit suicide. And they failed in their mission to boot because of their high moral standings. Nonsense.

Bo on Jan 13, 2014


Heh - I wish the title wasn't a giant spoiler. Haven't seen it yet.

avconsumer2 on Jan 13, 2014

Sorry, no commenting is allowed at this time.




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