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LONE SURVIVOR (2013) review

January 9, 2014







written by: Peter Berg

produced by: Peter Berg, Sarah Aubrey, Randall Emmett, Norton Herrick, Barry Spikings, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson & Vitaly Grigoriants

directed by: Peter Berg

rating: R (for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language)

runtime: 121 min.

U.S. release date: December 27, 2013 (limited) and January 10, 2014 (wide) 


“Lone Survivor” saw a limited release in December in order to qualify for award consideration. That was ambitious of Universal Pictures. While clearly designed to pay tribute to the real-life failed operation in Afghanistan involving four Navy SEALS back in 2005, it’s execution is full of war movie clichés, patriotic bravado and jingoistic laziness. Brutal and intense in its depiction of desperate survival in a no-win war zone, “Lone Survivor” will do well as “a Mark Wahlberg” movie, especially for January moviegoers, but for those of us who’ve been manipulated by one too many “based on a true story” war movies, the viewing experience ends up frustrating and exhausting.

Based on the 2006 book of the same name written by Mark Luttrell, a former United States Navy SEAL, Petty Officer First Class, “Lone Survivor” focuses solely on Luttrell’s account of what he endured during Operation Red Wings in the mountainous Afghanistan region of Swatalo Sar. Of the four (including himself) in SEAL Team 10, Luttrell was the sole survivor, hence the title. So, we know what the outcome will be going in, it’s just a matter of what went down, what went wrong and why.

As expected, Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) plays a predominant role in the movie, since it’s his tale to tell. He’s accompanied by two other Petty Officers, communications specialist, Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), razor-sharp Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster) and led by Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch). They four are tasked with apprehending or killing Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami) by Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana), but their goal is compromised when their cover is blown by local villagers. The four bearded men, who are already enduring treacherous terrain and spotty communication, soon find themselves in a violent ambush, struggling to keep each other alive, despite injuries, and hoping for air support.




Fresh off his 2012 summer flop, “Battleship” (which also starred Kitsch), director Peter Berg has been planning on adapting Luttrell’s book since he read it while making “Hancock”. Working off his own script, Berg, who co-produced the movie with Wahlberg, is excellent at the tense build-up that leads to impeccably filmed, and quite disorienting, action sequences. The problem is Berg’s writing relies so heavily on storytelling elements that are either entirely formulaic or completely unnecessary – and familiar.

It starts with Berg’s opening credits, where he shows a montage of hellacious SEAL training footage, while instrumental music sounding exactly like Berg’s “Friday Night Lights” soundtrack (no surprise, since it’s scored by Texan rock band, Explosions in the Sky, who provided music for “Friday Night Lights”) swells in order for us to “feel”. Right from the start, Berg wants us to make sure it’s clear the physical and emotional hardships these SEALs go through to be considered the best of the best. It’s unnecessary though, since we ultimately will feel the pain and struggle by the talented actors during the thick of the horrific action. After that borderline advertisement, Berg provides us with a flash-forward scene of a rescued Luttrell being flown back to safety. It’s unclear why this approach is used. Again – we know the title and we’re aware Mark Wahlberg has top billing and that he’ll survive, even if we’re not completely aware of who he’s playing at this point. Then we snap back to a “3 Days Earlier” timeframe where each of the four characters are given the requisite short-and-sweet backstory that establishes loved ones back home or any interest/abilities outside of being a SEAL.

I don’t know. I know this is based on real people from a real situation that occurred, but it is also very similar to a handful of other “bro, I got your back” action movies about war or soldiers in combat. Why, the most realistic scene was – SPOILER ALERT (as if there’s a way to spoil a movie called “Lone Survivor”) – was the surreal way in which Emilie Hirsch’s character is freaking out over having the fingers off his drawing hand blown off. As the enemy is closing down around the foursome, Hirsch is in his own state of shock, talking loudly giving their location away, but what’s on his mind as he looks at his finger stumps, is “such vivid reds!”  




That’s a believable, in-the-moment reaction made possible by Hirsch’s performance and the makeup effects by Greg Nicotero (of AMC’s The Walking Dead) and Howard Berger. Their work here is both convincing and visceral. Between their work and the sound effects crew, seeing and hearing the action in “Lone Survivor” is intensely affective.

There are moments in “Lone Survivor” that are absolutely painful to watch. Not in terms of the quality of the movie, I’m talking about how what happened to these four men is portrayed on-screen. I don’t have a diagnosis chart, but based on the amount of free falls from (and onto) extremely rocky terrain, these guys suffered the following: contusions, concussions, lacerations, fractures and sprains. Not to mention the amount of bullets they take here. That part – and the fact that they keep moving, searching for cover and engaging Taliban forces as they able – was quite something to take in. These are notably tense and realistic moments that end with Berg finishing off Hirsch, Kitsch and Foster, one by one with slo-mo shots. That part right there, as realistic as it might be, just felt clichéd. As does the painful line, “I am The Reaper”, a bloodied and cornered Foster utters as he continues to try to pick off his shadowy targets.

There’s an interesting development in the third act of “Lone Survivor”, one that shows us how Luttrell could not have survived on his own. Severely wounded and exhausted, the help he receives (one aspect I’ll withhold) is revelatory. Part of why Luttrell even wrote about what happened to him and his fellow SEALS (not just the three that were with him – an entire helicopter full of men was shot down by the Taliban as well), but clearly that help is a major reason why he felt compelled to tell the world his story as well.

Without going into too much detail, Berg’s decision to only translate certain lines of dialogue from “the enemy” is unfortunate and a grave mistake.  But, it’s typical of Hollywood. Affleck did the same thing in “Argo”. Play up the terrorists of a real-life situation and only supply subtitles to support that agenda.  Considering how the third act plays out here, there is a specific missed opportunity here. Not that I expect this kind of Hollywood release to reveal both sides fairly and knowing full well that this is predominately being told from one guy’s perspective, but I did audibly groin when I was being denied subtitles to integral Afghan characters, especially those in a Pashtun village. It’s rare to find a major studio release that steers clear of jingoism, but Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips” comes to mind. It’s a recent example of how revealing more about an antagonist in a movie, especially one that includes certain ethnic-types perpetuated by media (and movies) in a stereotypical villainous manner, can not only inform and enrich the viewing experience, but also crack those stereotypes.

If anything, what “Lone Survivor” did was pique my curiosity about Luttrell and his experience in Afghanistan and especially the Pashtun people. Hopefully, “Lone Survivor” will likely make others just as curious as much as it will certainly cause other moviegoers to proclaim, “this movie was awesome”. One thing I’m definitely taking away from the movie is this – a movie’s title shouldn’t always be the same as the book it’s adapting.




RATING: **1/2





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