Review: Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor
8 10

Read Eric Walkuski’s review here

PLOT: Based on the failed June 28, 2005 mission "Operation Red Wings". Four members of SEAL Team 10 were tasked with the mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd.

REVIEW: Before I jump into this I want to make my bias clear; I am a combat veteran, having served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s impossible to ignore that while reviewing a movie like LONE SURVIVOR and it’s the very reason I am doing so. The thing about military movies is that to veterans, active duty military, and their families and friends, they’re taken very personally. And they should be. As I read over the reviews for the film prior to seeing it I noticed a number of misguided, callous, and politically minded judgments about the film, as well as the motivations of the characters and the circumstances they found themselves in. My intention here is simple; to share one combat vet/movie geek's perspective on the film.

I read both the book by Marcus Luttrell (the LONE SURVIVOR of the story) and the script by Peter Berg prior to seeing the film and went into it with a heavy heart, as I do with any film that portrays modern combat. Having been blown up, shot at, engaged with the enemy, and lost many of my friends and comrades, some right before my eyes, these types of movies aren’t just a cinematic experience anymore, but a pot stirrer for my PTSD and a representation of Veteran’s on the whole. I knew that Berg was more than capable of directing an adaptation of LONE SURVIVOR, especially after THE KINGDOM, but my hope was that he’d be able to tell the story as well as he could show it.  For the most part, he succeeds, but it’s not a slam-dunk.

The film opens with archival footage of men going through the rigorous BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) 6-month training course, showing just a sliver of what it takes to even make it onto a SEAL team. This serves as the all-you-need-to-know segue to the seasoned SEAL's at their forward operating base, where they slumber, talk to their significant others, give each other shit, and get down to business. From the onset, everything looks consistent down to the minutest detail; gear, weapons, uniforms, even the plywood-laced living quarters. It all feels right at home away from home, which is no surprise with Luttrell, as well as other former SEALS, serving as advisors on the film.
There isn’t a large amount of back-story into each member of the four-man team that embarked on Operation Red Wings, a recon mission to locate a local enemy leader, nor is it necessary. These men are defined by their actions on the ground and their resulting perseverance and sacrifice. The last thing this story needs is a Terrance Malick induced sequence of these men as boys with nonsensical voice over to provide some kind of transcendental depth. Berg chose to focus primarily on the mission, which is fitting, although he ultimately loses steam once it’s over.

Starring Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell, the Lone Survivor of the story, Taylor Kitsch as team leader Lt. Mike Murphy, Ben Foster as Matt “Axe” Axelson, Emile Hirsch as Danny Deitz, and Eric Bana as Commander Erik Kristensen, LONE SURVIVOR is a brutal portrayal of survival and sacrifice, which will resonate with you long after the credits roll. From the time the mission launches there is an air of dread, the same kind I’ve felt time and again when “leaving the wire” on any patrol. The film succeeds greatly at recreating that tension. When the SEALS encounter a group of goat herders who stumble upon their position the issue of what to do about the compromise is brought up. To the uninitiated this may seem like a cut and dry no brainer, but for the men on the ground it’s a difficult situation that has many considerations. War is not black and white, as I've witnessed many times, and this scene illustrates that notion perfectly.

The results of their decision to let the goat herders go are visited upon them in short order and this is where LONE SURVIVOR delivers the grit of the story, as four men face an overwhelming force of enemy fighters, the exact number of which has been in contention ever since (in a situation and terrain like that, believe me, it’s not so easy to take count while being shot at and blown up).  It’s a vicious battle that shows the brutality of what bullets and shrapnel can do in real life. The most harrowing moment comes when the men literally fall back on the mountain, their bodies turned into ragdolls tossed into the void, spiraling and crashing into the hellish terrain. Having climbed the mountains of that country with full gear it brought back all the anxiety of watching your every step for fear of tumbling over and then some.

Berg shoots the action with a kinetic energy that is hugely restrained from the over-the-top showiness of 2012’s BATTLESHIP, instead choosing his bigger moments carefully, particularly when one of the SEALS meets his fate. Each of those moments pack an emotional wallop, particularly the final stand of Ben Foster’s Axelson, who fights to the last mag, his final moment a biting sting. Foster pulls out a brave performance, once again showing his strengths as an actor who is far too underutilized. Hirsch is equally adept here, as is usually the case. For Kitsch, it’s a complete turnaround from the leading-man hero roles he inhabited in JOHN CARTER and BATTLESHIP. Had he started his feature career with LONE SURVIVOR I’d wager that he would have a very different reputation.
Wahlberg is a mixed bag. In truth, he isn’t quite the embodiment of the real Marcus Luttrell, a rugged Texan with a bit of a twang and stocky build. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it feels more like Wahlberg playing it his own way, rather than as the real man.  That said, his intensity, heart, and passion are there and he has no trouble carrying the weight of the role, even if it’s not as meaty as it could’ve been, especially if there had been more time invested in the last third. The thing about Wahlberg, though, is that he's become an instantly likeable screen presence and that certainly helps. In many ways he's like the big brother of the group and that feels fitting.

After the ill-fated firefight, LONE SURVIVOR, unfortunately, takes a turn for the worse. Rather than invest an extra 15-20 minutes into the story of Luttrell’s assistance by an Afghani villager named Gulab, his torture by the enemy fighters, and the complexities of his eventual rescue, the film hits the fast forward button and basically summarizes an intense five-day struggle to survive within 20 minutes. The bond between Luttrell and Gulab was built over a much longer period of time and it deserved much more screentime than was allotted. Most people see very little of how much soldiers actually interact with the local populace during wartime and in this instance I feel it would've been beneficial to see that type of exchange, especially considering that it was the deciding factor in what ultimately kept Luttrell alive.

Composer Steve Jablonsky and Explosions in the Sky put forth a strong, toned-down score that elevates the material without overshadowing it.  The sound design in general is outstanding, as they’ve captured the clap and hiss of bullets whizzing by and the crumbling of debris showering through the air as if they recorded the audio from an actual firefight. There’s very few films that get those details right and it’s refreshing (and a bit off putting for guys like me) to hear.

LONE SURVIVOR is a riveting, gut-punch portrait of modern warfare, particularly in the mountains of Afghanistan. No other war film can equal it on those terms. It's a film that echoes the hundreds of thousands of combat stories like it that have yet to be told in this medium (and likely never will). In that respect, I’m thankful that films like this are still being made. Despite what you may hear, it’s not “jingoistic” or “flag waving,” nor is it a “recruitment tool,” as some have suggested (you don’t just “sign up” to be a SEAL, in case the opening credits didn’t point that out) and while the ending is a botched rush job, everything before it is a true testament to the resolve, brotherhood, and perseverance of men under fire that never deviates into a political message or statement about foreign policy. It’s not that movie, nor should it be. This is a movie purely about modern day warriors, no more, no less, and for many, myself included, it will linger in their thoughts long into a sleepless night.  

Extra Tidbit: I’m often asked what the most realistic modern war film’s are, in my opinion. For me, the documentary Restrepo is like reliving the experiences all over again. In terms of narrative, the HBO miniseries Generation Kill fits the realism like a glove.
Source: JoBlo.com



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