Review: Lone Survivor
PLOT: Four Navy SEALs on a covert mission to neutralize a high-level Taliban operative find themselves ambushed by enemy forces in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan.
REVIEW: You think your job is tough. What LONE SURVIVOR imparts, if nothing else, is that there may be no more grueling, frightening existence than that of the soldier. Your opinion on the particular war - or the necessity of war in general - is a different matter, but you can't discount the fact that the people who suit up and heave themselves into an enemy territory are truly brave souls.
I'm not even attempting to get political, and the intriguing thing about LONE SURVIVOR, directed by Peter Berg (a long way from BATTLESHIP), is that it's not trying to get very political either. Actually, its very apoliticalness may be its masterstroke, as both sides of the spectrum will be able to claim its speaking for and to them. The right can view it as a heartfelt tribute to the war effort's brave boys, while the left will see it as proof that there's nothing other than hopelessness in putting our people into positions like the one dramatized here. Berg basically lets the story tell itself, which is admirable, although he's not above wringing our guts out.
Set in the summer of 2005, the film tells the scary true life story (based on Marcus Luttrell's 2007 book of the same name) of an outfit of Navy SEALS who are dropped into the Afghanistan mountains on a mission to take out a high-ranking Taliban chief. Predictably, the mission was meant to go smoothly, which may explain why only four soldiers are dropped directly into the arid atmosphere while the rest of the squad waited back at the base. The soldiers we meet are drawn rather thinly, even though the entire first act is used to get to know them: there's Marcus (Mark Wahlberg), Michael (Taylor Kitsch), Danny (Emile Hirsch) and Matt (Ben Foster). I'd attempt to describe them further, but Berg's script rarely gives them much material beyond the typical macho man speak. We learn that other than Marcus, the men have women waiting for them at home, and Michael is on the verge of getting married. Not much else can be gleaned about these fellows in the early going, which doesn't quite earn them our sympathies.
But Berg manages to shake up our indifference to the characters about 45 minutes in, when the men are in the Kunar province waiting for a shot at their target. A small group of goat herders stumble upon them, and the situation quickly escalates into a moral dilemma: do our soldiers kill the goat herders, or let them free? Doing the latter could upset the mission (they aren't sure they work for the Taliban or not), performing the former will see their mission continue but could of course ignite a firestorm of controversy at home, not to mention stain their souls. The decision is made - after some arguing - to let them go. Berg doesn't underplay the graveness of this action; one of the younger Afghanis runs down the mountain in overdramatized slow-mo to seal the SEALs' fate.
What happens next is undoubtedly the most harrowing depiction of combat filmed in the modern age; comparable in the grit and gore departments to the Normandy landing of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN but drawn out even further (overall, however, LONE SURVIVOR is no SAVING PRIVATE RYAN). The men are ambushed, the mountains are suddenly crawling with Taliban soldiers, and a seemingly non-stop firefight ensues. In the early going, this has a video game feel; we see plenty of the Taliban soldiers through a sniper scope, while the American soldiers are hit many, many times, shrugging off bullet wounds while perfectly dropping their targets with one shot. There's an air of invincibility at first to our protagonists which somewhat contradicts the "this is really how it is" aesthetic Berg is striving for. However, Berg eventually makes it all too clear that the SEALs are anything but indestructible, putting through several utterly brutal physical torments. More than once they're forced to throw themselves down the mountain, and their ensuing tumbles down the rocky wall are nothing short of stomach-churning. The inevitability of the outcome (this has been titled LONE SURVIVOR after all) begins to give the proceedings a tragic atmosphere; Berg is trying to take these one-note characters and give them dimension by virtue of their horrific plight.
In technical terms, LONE SURVIVOR is aces; the frenetic camerawork and crisp sound design combine to create an unfathomable intensity and the old "war is hell" credo is hammered home with assurance. Every bullet hits hard, every stumble to the ground concludes with a terrible crunch, and the landscape is unforgiving. Perhaps the most impressive work comes via the make-up department; the men are eventually reduced to pulp, barely human-looking things with clipped ears, scarred cheeks, bloody gashes everywhere. When the Special Make-Up Effects credit comes during the opening, I suppose that's a tip-off the proceedings are going to get messy. Berg doesn't hold back, he lets the camera rest on every gaping wound - this is surely the grossest movie of the year (sorry, EVIL DEAD).
The cast is game for their physical wear and tear; they can't do much to bring distinctive personalities to what amount to standard-issue characters, but when the going gets tough, they look for all the world like they're in the shit. If there's a stand-out, it's Ben Foster, reliable as always and having a great 2013 (see AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS and KILL YOUR DARLINGS for further proof). Mark Wahlberg brings his natural toughness to the role of Marcus and that's just about enough, although it must be said his shrieks of agony are as believable as can be. (And he does plenty of shrieking in the third act, his body a borderline crippled wreck.)
LONE SURVIVOR ends on a note of mournful tribute to the fallen soldiers, an extended montage of the real-life men who died in the battle, and though there's no doubt it's respectful, it definitely seems a bit calculated; Berg is angling to leave you a weepy mess. The movie overall wavers between coming off as a manipulative assault on the senses and skilled exercise in frenzied action. It's a very well-made film, but the lack of human characterization hinders it; the grief we feel at the end would be so much stronger had Berg given us flesh-and-blood men to care about. Instead he mostly leans on the flesh and blood.