Lone Survivor – Review


Peter Berg’s harrowing depiction of Operation Red Wings

Sometimes your best work is done when you got a gun at your head. John Travolta admitted as much as Chili Palmer in Get Shorty when explaining that Orson Welles didn’t even want to do Touch of Evil, but the studio made him do it, since he owed them one and all of Welles’ movies lost money.

Peter Berg encountered a similar situation only reversed. Universal Pictures would bankroll his passion project, Lone Survivor, but he had to make the summer blockbuster Battleship first. Well that ship has sailed, or more pointedly sank as audiences thought it was Transformers on the high seas. That was a waste of Berg’s talents; Lone Survivor is a much-needed rebound for a man who started out as an actor because he had a pretty face and because no one would take him seriously standing behind the camera.

His latest isn’t as much a film about the war in Afghanistan as it is about the bonds of brotherhood that exists between men in combat fatigues. Some might label it propaganda to bolster military recruiting, but I see it more as Berg trying to recount a singular event that touched him in some profound way. Far too often directors make uninspiring works that are hollow in terms of commitment to subject. Here, Berg shows the type of dedication to get the details right – much in the same way the lengths David Fincher would go to explore one man’s obsession when it came to discovering the identity of the infamous Zodiac killer.

Based on the book co-authored by sole survivor Marcus Lutrell, the film is based on events of Operation Red Wings, which occurred in the Hindu Kush mountains of the Kunar province in June 2005.

From the opening moments it is clear that Peter Berg’s intentions for Lone Survivor are for it to be a lasting tribute to Navy SEALs past and present. Bookended by documentary montages of SEAL training and an In Memoriam for the 19 U.S. soldiers that died as part of the operation, this docudrama doesn’t want you forget that what you have just witnessed was an actual event. While some liberties to the story are taken for plot-progression purposes, stars Mark Whalberg, Taylor Kitsch and others are the ciphers – reminders of the real-life SEALs that took part in the doomed 2005 recon mission to capture and kill Taliban head Ahmad Shah, a man notorious for killing U.S. Marines by the dozens.

Luttrell (Wahlberg), Lt. Michael Murphy (Kitsch), Danny P. Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster) are introduced in succession as the frogmen of SEAL Team 10 who would become involved in a firefight with an enemy vastly outnumbering them. Their introductions are rather standard, but we are offered just enough details about their characters to make us care in the later proceedings, when the action intensifies from a snatch-and-grab job to one of survival.

In the mountains the men would come to encounter two problems. There’s communications and the inconsistency when it comes to radio and satellite phone transmissions. In terms of battle scenarios where fight or flight are the two options, the inability to communicate for support essentially cuts them off when a critical decision is made. That decision comes at the expense of having their temporary base camp position approached by three goat herders. The sequence that occurs in which the SEALs weigh what to do the three men is compelling, yet was factually inaccurate. It was Hollywoodized for dramatic purposes. Even Luttrell has said in interviews it didn’t happen as it was depicted in the film. But the decision has had a ripple effect in the form of soul-searching on part of Luttrell and second-guessing in the rank and file of the military. The goat herders are released and the teen in the group rushes down the mountain to alert Shah. Nearly two hours after releasing the herders the four SEALs are ambushed by Shah’s army.

The majority of the last act of Lone Survivor is one prolonged combat sequence: these four men against approximately 150-strong Taliban forces. The sustained firefight and the action that unfolds for 45 minutes may be Peter Berg’s best work as a filmmaker. It’s definitely his most intense. The action is so visceral in its depiction – watching the four soldiers careen down a rocky cliff is enough to avert your eyes from time to time – that you almost wish it would stop.

The chaos is lensed exceptionally by Tobias Schliesser, who photographs the grim reality of battle. So grim that you disbelieve these four SEALs could continue to persevere after sustaining bullet wounds, being impaled by trees and shrubs, and bludgeoned on rocks. But yet they continue to get up, regroup, move. Warrior creeds like “failure is not an option” and “leave no man behind” have been around for decades, but for Navy SEALs their code is rather contemporary consisting of multiple creeds emphasizing among other things the ideal that a SEAL is never out of the fight.

Equally effective to the cinematography is the special prosthetic effects by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger (of The Walking Dead and numerous feature films). The bloodied-to-a-pulp visage of Ben Foster’s Axelson character and Mark Wahlberg’s impromptu surgery to remove a piece of shrapnel from his leg in the late proceedings isn’t for the squeamish.

The only major drawback to Lone Survivor is the story’s one-sided approach. Seeing as that the film is adapted from the non-fictional work that Luttrell co-authored, it’s understandable that the central focus is of the failed mission and the four SEALs involved. It’s not that Berg couldn’t have made a denser story about the story surrounding Operation Red Wings – one that would have included more involvement by the native Pashtun people (arguably the true heroes) and their ethical code of Pashtunwali, which includes offering protection and defending the weak against them – but his overall goal seemed to be a cinematic recreation of said mission as well as highlighting these men as warriors forged by adversity.

Depending on how you look at it Lone Survivor is either a chronicle of a mission gone horribly wrong, in which all the principal characters die except for one, or a tale of courage and survival. I respect that Berg’s film isn’t looking to make grand pronouncements when looking at a war that is still ongoing. Leave that for the blabbering pundits on television. Lone Survivor succeeds by being small and intense.

Director: Peter Berg

Writer: Peter Berg; based on “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10″ written by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson

Notable Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig, Yousuf Azami, Sammy Sheik

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