Lone Survivor (2013) / War-Action
MPAA Rated: R for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language
Running Time: 121 min.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig
Cameo: Peter Berg
Director: Peter Berg
Screenplay: Peter Berg (based on the book by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson)
Review published December 31, 2013
Lone Survivor is based on the best-selling memoir by Marcus Luttrell (Played in the film by Mark Wahlberg, 2 Guns) about his ordeal in 2005 as a Navy SEAL who must fight for survival with three of his fellow frogmen in the mountains of Afghanistan when their mission, dubbed Operation Red Wings, is compromised, resulting in the Taliban in the area hunting them down. When their communication gear proves ineffective, the men quickly realize that the only way to survive will be to fight for their lives and hope that they are able to live to see the air support vehicles that may never come.
The title is a bit of a giveaway as to what happens in the movie for the group of four men sent to do recon to find a major leader in the Taliban, but to its credit, the film does begin with a shot that takes place toward the end that acknowledges as such. Nevertheless, at least for the first hour or so, this war film from Peter Berg (Battleship, Hancock) is gripping in its tension, with a kind of harrowing set-up that rings of a certain authenticity that makes the peril the men face truly nightmarish. We feel like we're right in the middle of the action, as the claustrophobia of each hole the men try to protect themselves with becomes ever more precarious.
In particular, it's a rare thing to see a soldier take a bullet in the heat of battle unless it serves a purpose, such as a death shot or one that wounds him to sacrifice. The men in this film get hit by bullets repeatedly, which looks downright agonizing, yet they are trained to suck up the pain and soldier on. Between their increasing bullet wounds and their tumbles down unforgiving, rocky terrain, the chance for survival grows ever more bleak by the hour.
Perhaps the best aspect of Love Survivor comes from the acting by the main quartet. With the exception of the lighter-haired Ben Foster (Kill Your Darlings, The Mechanic), it's not exactly easy to tell Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch (John Tucker Must Die, The Covenant), and Emile Hirsch (Prince Avalanche, Speed Racer) apart physically, as they all have similar hair color and beards, so it is to their credit that they give each member of the party a distinct personality that we can identify with. Meanwhile, Berg as a director and co-screenwriter shows us the brotherhood of soldiers and their camaraderie in the barracks during their rigorous training routines prior to going out on their mission. One particularly effective story element comes through the bookending of their conflict between moments of sheer compassion for those who are captured in war, both by Americans and by Taliban-resisting villagers in Afghanistan, and how acts of mercy in the face of certain retaliation are acts of extreme courage worthy of great honor.
On the down side, as we know that the title is Lone Survivor, and that the opening shot tells us who that survivor is, there is a lessening of narrative tension, as we wait for three of the four men to meet their ultimate fate. Though there is little doubt that each man died heroically, we can see from the film that their fate is speculatively told, as they all die alone to a certain degree (it's unlikely the Taliban were interviewed by the filmmakers to find out exactly how each man died). Also, as the film enters its second-half climax, Berg ratchets up the action-movie clichés that he had successfully avoided so well in the gripping build-up. As the air of authenticity gets sucked out for traditional action-movie beats, so too does the realistic grip of the film.
Lone Survivor ends with the melancholy display of pictures of the real soldiers and their families who were part of Operation Red Wings, which is perhaps the best tribute it makes to the sacrificed fallen in this film that engages with the dark and gritty reality of war and heroism, only to surrender to a final action-oriented conflict that feels more like it should belong in a less factual, more multiplex crowd-pleasing Hollywood motion picture.
©2013 Vince Leo