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
Follow Jeremy on Twitter - @JeremyKKirk
Reader Feedback - 23 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
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
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
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
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
I would have killed the goat herders.
Astroboy3000 on Jan 12, 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
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
Heh - I wish the title wasn't a giant spoiler. Haven't seen it yet.
avconsumer2 on Jan 13, 2014
Sorry, new comments are no longer allowed.