Lone Survivor review: One powerful film

LONE SURVIVOR TRAILER ImageRated R for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig, and Eric Bana

Written By: Peter Berg (based on the book by Marcus Luttrell)

Directed By: Peter Berg

Lone Survivor is a true account of the botched 2005 mission “Operation Red Wings” in which four Navy Seals were tasked with capturing (or killing) Taliban commander Ahmad Shah. Though the movie’s title may give away the ending, the dreadful journey to that finale is so gripping and intense that it hardly matters wether or not you already know the fate of the characters. As a matter of fact – being aware that impending doom is coming but unsure of how or when it’s going to occur only serves to add more tension to an already unnerving film. Fraught with emotion and featuring some of the most violent and viscerally exciting battle sequences in a long time, Lone Survivor may possibly be the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan.

Writer/director Peter Berg adapts this story from real lone survivor Marcus Luttrell’s book of the same name, an eyewitness account of the events of that fateful day. Mark Wahlberg stars as Luttrell along with comrades Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster). Although not imbedded in Afghanistan for the mission, also integral to the story are senior officer Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) and rookie Shane Patton (Alexander Ludwig), both representing opposite ends of the Seal spectrum. Berg wisely spends the first act of the film introducing and humanizing the characters, all of whom have left their homes and loved ones to serve their country. Wives, girlfriends, children etc., each character has someone who misses them which makes the emotional blow that much more impactful when the inevitable happens.

The first portion of the film also depicts the strong bond between the Seals – brothers in arms whose lives on the battlefield are just important to one another as their own. The setup is somewhat subdued in pace but when the film arrives at the 40 minute mark and the mission begins – the action is relentless and non-stop for the rest of the 2-hour runtime. Berg is more interested in delivering an all-out action movie than he is in giving a meticulously factual recount of events. The Taliban enemy whom the Seals encounter number in the 200 range, but varying reports have pinned the actual number at 20-50. The Seal team in the film are able to take out about 20-50 enemies with ease within minutes of the battle starting – which increases the excitement of the gunfight even if it diminishes the realism of it. Berg doesn’t go the Zero Dark Thirty or Hurt Locker route of constructing a cerebral war movie – he still cares about telling an important story but all the while generating unabashed entertainment. In that sense, Lone Survivor is more overtly patriotic than those previously mentioned films, setting aside questions of military morality in favor of jingoistic heroism.

The Seal team’s mission becomes compromised when their hideout is stumbled upon by three unarmed goat herders – an elderly man, a teenager and a young boy. The team’s options in handling the situation more or less comes down to letting them go or killing them. When the goat herders are in fact set free, they reveal the Seals whereabouts to the Taliban. Knowing what we know now, this decision solidified their fates and perhaps it was the wrong call. However, as the men discuss – aside from the murder of unarmed civilians being morally unjust, it would have done major damage to the integrity of the armed forces if the story broke out. The “goat herder dilemma” happens to be the murkiest aspect of this story as there would have been a plethora of better options (tying rocks to the herder’s feet, only letting the old man go and tying up the boys, etc.)  in which the Seals could have bought themselves time. Obviously no one but Luttrell really knows what occurred up on that mountain but when the general audience could come up with a better method to deal with the crisis than the trained Seals, it’s a peculiarity that calls into question the films authenticity.

Mark Wahlberg proves once again to be one of the most effective onscreen action heroes working today and he’s anchored by a strong supporting cast, all of whom add levity to this shoot ‘em up. Kitsch, Hirsch and Foster are all believable in their roles with each getting a heartbreaking scene to display their acting chops. A movie like this wouldn’t work without characters whom we care about and the cast does a fine job of ensuring that we do.

This is Peter Berg’s best film to date – going to show that when he’s passionate about a project, the man is one hell of a filmmaker. Even with a dud like Battleship (which he agreed direct in order to get this film financed), his films are all well made on a technical level even when the script is lacking. Of his resume, Lone Survivor is most closely related to The Kingdom, another solid war thriller yet this one improves upon it.

If you’re willing to put aside accusations of fictitiousness (and you should), Lone Survivor is a spellbinding war film that induces white-knuckles and sweaty palms as much as any action thriller, let alone war movie, in recent memory. It’s all terrifically exciting, featuring prolonged edge-of-your-seat sequences that don’t let up. That would be enough – but add to that brawny performances, a compelling story and rousing emotions and what you get is one overwhelmingly powerful film.

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  • Will

    It was just another war movie. Good action, little character development, didn’t stand out to me at all. Good movie but way over-hyped.

  • John Smith

    Can you site your sources for this line, please?

    “varying reports have pinned the actual number at 20-50.”

  • bonhoeffer

    sorry, but please don’t list tying rocks to their feet as a viable option. How would they secure the rock? They are equipped with zip-tie bindings for captives, but your option is nearly comical. In the book, there was only one Sheppard. They couldn’t leave him there, as that would have been inhumane. He could starve or be vulnerable to animals. Perhaps they could have taken him with them until they established communications, but that was fraught with risk because they had to move stealthily for a successful mission. As the movie established, there are multiple factions in Afghanistan, and they trusted that these villagers. It was the wrong call, but one that american soldiers make. We not only have lots of optimism, but are not beholden to the determinism that many Afghanis live by. Additionally, we are given extensive training in the law of armed conflict, which we take seriously as a nation and as individual soldiers. That was one of the high tensions of the movie: the conflict between policy, passion and need. (Apache helicopters needed for escort, can’t land the helicopter without gunship support, don’t talk on an insecure SATPHONE.) (btw, I’m now one of the policy people who sets the rules, no longer in field breaking them.)