Lone Survivor

The true story presented in director Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor is a remarkable one that, in addition to exploring the bond of brotherhood that connects soldiers in the heat of combat, also serves as a reminder that heroes come in many forms. With a talented cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, and Taylor Kitsch, Berg’s adaptation...read more

Reviewed by Jason Buchanan
Rating:

The true story presented in director Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor is a remarkable one that, in addition to exploring the bond of brotherhood that connects soldiers in the heat of combat, also serves as a reminder that heroes come in many forms. With a talented cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, and Taylor Kitsch, Berg’s adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s New York Times best-seller succeeds in placing the viewer right in the action of a mission gone awry, though swelling military snare drums and overly dramatized death scenes hint that this version of the story may be thinly disguised jingoistic propaganda rather than a sincere attempt to tell a genuinely moving tale of survival against all odds.

The year is 2005. In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, the Afghanistan War is well under way when military intelligence learns that a senior Taliban member is hiding out in a remote village deep in the Hindu Kush mountains of the Kunar province. Convinced that his capture or killing could turn the tide of the difficult war in favor of the United States, the Navy hatches Operation Red Wings. The goal is simple: Send a select team of SEALs to stake out the village from the surrounding mountains, and move on their target when the time is right. Under the leadership of Lt. Michael Murphy (Kitsch), Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg), Matt Axelson (Foster), and Danny Dietz (Hirsch) reach their checkpoint, and quickly realized that another nearby hill will provide a better vantage point. But shortly after arriving at the new location and getting a positive ID on their target, the soldiers are caught off guard by three wandering shepherds, one of them a young boy. Ultimately, a heated vote over what to do with the captured shepherds leads Lt. Murphy to decide that the best course of action is to abide by the rules of engagement, meaning that the soldiers will abort the mission, release the captives, and retreat to their extraction point. Shortly after the shepherds are set free, however, the SEALs find themselves surrounded by dozens of Taliban soldiers, and engage in a fierce gunfight that -- with the aid of some truly brave villagers -- only Luttrell will survive.

A labor of love for director Berg (who agreed to make Battleship for Universal Pictures before moving on to this more personal project), Lone Survivor is at once a visceral action film and an unabashed tribute to the men and women of the U.S. military. Early scenes emphasizing the fraternal bond between Navy SEALS get things off to a lighthearted start as we gradually become acquainted with the team and learn about their lives outside the military. As a screenwriter, Berg uses a number of symbols (including color swatches and Arabian horses) to show us exactly what they’re risking to serve their country, while also giving us a brief crash course in military protocol. All of this serves to inject a certain amount of humanity into the doomed mission, and thanks to his lead actors, Berg reveals himself to be an efficient storyteller with an eye for detail.

Once the focus moves to the mountains and the soldiers come under fire, Berg makes the transition a smooth one by instantly immersing us in the action. But this is also the point when some viewers may start to take issue with Lone Survivor: Despite Berg’s effective, workmanlike approach as a director in these key sequences, his instinctive drive to paint his protagonists as heroes begins to eclipse the almost unimaginably courageous efforts undertaken by a few brave Taliban resisters to risk not just their lives, but the lives of their families to abide by a local code of Pashtunwali -- which requires that they offer hospitality and protection to any “guest” they encounter, and states that such guests should not be surrendered to an enemy. Given the gruesome atrocities we see the Taliban inflict on the villagers early in the film, we know without question that the threat to them is very real. Sadly, the scenes in which a benevolent father and son risk certain death (not to mention the destruction of their entire village) to prevent the Taliban from decapitating Luttrell are treated like something of an afterthought to the carnage in the mountains -- which feels like a grave disservice not only because it’s the most dramatically compelling aspect of the story, but because it challenges our preconceptions about foreign cultures.

Even when Luttrell takes pause to thank his protectors in perhaps the movie’s most moving scene, the overwhelming presence of the U.S. military undermines the poignancy on display. Given that the moment is quickly followed by a montage of the many U.S. soldiers who lost their lives during the mission in a rescue attempt gone horribly awry (and make no mistake, these soldiers do indeed deserve our respect and recognition, perhaps just not at this particular point in the film), it feels as if Berg favors flag-waving action over the genuinely compelling notion that real heroes sometimes sport turbans instead of tactical gear.

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