– Summary –
Director : Peter Berg
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig, Yousuf Azami, Sammy Sheik.
Approx Running Time : 121 Minutes
Synopsis: A four-man covert operation to reconnoiter a Taliban operative hiding in the Hindu Kush, during the war in Afghanistan, has deadly consequences for those involved when their cover is blown, and they find themselves without backup.
What we think : Pulse-pounding, muscular, sweaty action flick delivers all the combat you could want in a two hour film, and then some. While the title gives away the ending, and the characters aren’t as well developed as I’d have liked, director Peter Berg proves again that films like Battleship are purely for the paycheck. Lone Survivor is an engrossing, testoserone-laden tribute to the fallen men of the US military’s Operation Red Wings, and a worthy successor to modern classics like Black Hawk Down, or Saving Private Ryan. It might not have the same gut-punch frisson as those two films, but it sure rattles the cage as a solid, first-class military war picture.
Behind Enemy Lines? Owen Wilson woulda shit himself!
If I was cynical, part of me would reason that the point of war is to provide Hollywood with stories to tell. War films have been a long, proud genre of film-making, and throughout the decades have produced their fair share of classics, from All Quiet On The Western Front, The Longest Day, to Apocalypse Now and Platoon, to name just a few. Traditional war films fill one of three subsets: the all-out action, non-stop firepower of battle (Saving Private Ryan), or the passionate, aching beauty of the futility of it all (The Thin Red Line), or some mixture of both. Lone Survivor, like Black Hawk Down and Three Kings before it, is a modern war picture, set in the recent past, and tells a true story of four men who face incredible, impossible odds to simply survive their mission-gone-wrong. Unfortunately, the very title of the film gives the game away, so we kinda can guess from the opening who may or may not make it to the end credits – the fact that only one of the four brave men portrayed in this film lived to tell the story is, in itself, heartbreaking, but to sit through two hours of film to witness their bravery and heroism in the face of insurmountable odds is, frankly, something of an honor. Honor or not, though, the question must still be asked: is Lone Survivor a good film? It’s a great story, yes, but as a work of non-fiction transposed to the screen, how does it hold up?
Plot Synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: In Afghanistan, Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami) is responsible for killing over twenty United States Marines, as well as villagers and refugees who were aiding American forces. In response to these killings, the United States Navy SEALs are assigned to perform a counter-insurgent mission to capture Shah. As part of the mission, a four-man SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team is tasked to track Shah’s whereabouts. The four SEAL teammates are team leader Michael P. “Murph” Murphy (Taylor Kitsch); hospital corpsman and sniper Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg); sonar technician Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster); and communications specialist Danny Dietz (Emilie Hirsch). The team is inserted into the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan, where they make their trek through the mountains. Upon arriving to their designated location, the SEAL teammates are discovered by an elderly shepherd and two teenage goat herders. After the team releases the herders, and as they attempt to abort the mission, they are ambushed by Taliban forces. Enormously outnumbered, and with communication to their commanding officer, LC Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana), severely compromised, the SEAL team engage in a running gun-battle with the Taliban forces.
Lone Survivor begins with a montage of SEAL training, a hard-core endurance test of both physical and emotional limits, that ensures only the strongest and fittest make it into the program. Lone Survivor ends with a montage of the men who gave up their lives for the Red Wings mission, a catalog of tragedy and courage that I never understood, but could always appreciate. Military people are a family, a brotherhood (although I think many serving women might disagree…) that “has each others’ backs”, so to speak. Lone Survivor displays all that family stuff, displays it wantonly, as a way of trying to get into the heads and under the skin of the men we’re going to follow through this adventure. One of them is considering buying his fiancee an Arabian horse as a wedding present. Another is choosing wallpaper and curtain colors for his wife back home. And there’s the multitude of pictures of children – those left behind. Now, perhaps I’m being too jaded here, but isn’t the point of all this missing humanity a vast contrast to the military’s inherent inhumanity all about? To ask a film to develop the characters of these men, to get us to understand them, seems counter-intuitive when you consider that the SEAL training essentially strips them bare of the very thing we’re hoping to glimpse.
The film’s screenplay, which was written by Berg off the book by Marcus Luttrell, is packed with technical jargon, a confusing amount of logistical and military mumbo-jumbo that makes a lot of the early third of the film somewhat incomprehensible to noobs like myself, but I think what we’re supposed to get from all of this is a viewer boot camp on soldiering; in amongst this we’re introduced to all the major players, most of whom are hidden behind layers of facial growth and indistinguishably similar uniforms. It’s all “Hoo rahh” and “saddle up” and stuff, all chest-thumping and business-like machismo, which I guess when you’re going off to fight that’s reasonable to expect a bit of diversionary emotional scaffolding. Yet, Berg never gives us any heartfelt moments, no peek behind the military facade, and I guess that’s something that annoyed me about this film, and is something I’ve had to expect from almost every modern war film. We’re expecting these soldiers to be solid-state killing machines, and yet we want them slightly fractured to develop as characters.
Once the team arrives on site, and the proverbial shit hits the fan, the film turns from a fairly passive incursion training video into a run-and-gun battlefield documentary. Berg’s camera whips around the mountainous landscape, filled with trees and flying bullets, as our foursome try desperately to find cover and return fire. The ferocity of the fighting is relentless, the bullets, explosions and bodies littering the landscape both visually and aurally; it’s little wonder that Lone Survivor was nominated for Oscars in the sound categories, because this film delivers some of the most intense audio experiences of combat to date. Berg doesn’t appear to rely too heavily on visual effects, at least not that I could tell, and the stunt work involved here should be applauded by everyone who sees it – the four SEAL’s fling themselves over cliffs not once, not twice, but three freakin’ times in this movie, every time sustaining more and more physical injury that most of us regular Joes would probably never survive. I guess when you’re desperate to survive, you’ll consider any avenue of escape legitimate.
The cast, led by Mark Wahlberg, are solid. Wahlberg is fantastic here as Luttrell, he’s all raw energy and lacking the actor’s usual cavalier attitude to roles; I think Berg drew a great performance from him. Equally so is Taylor Kitsch, whom most will remember as having a horror year on the big screen after starring in the box-office turkey John Carter, and critical turkey Battleship (with Peter Berg directing); Kitsch makes the “famous” Michael P Murphy, a revered figure in the SEAL outfit, something similar to a Wolverine character, all brawny and filled with indestructible willpower. Kitsch is nearly unrecognizable here, which surprised me, because I had forgotten he was even in this. Ben Foster, as Axe, once more proves that he’s an actor who will one day snag an Oscar; the dude is a serious contender for one of the best actors going round these days, and his focused, driven portrayal of Axe is commanding to the point of being the best part of the film. Emile Hirsch lacks depth as Dietz, his character suffering the ignominy of playing second-fiddle to the other three, and I felt disappointed that we didn’t get to see more from him. His character’s arc also felt clumsily handled, with the emotional connection between he and his wife lacking momentum as his final fate at the hands of Taliban combatants is revealed.
Eric Bana displays the same gruff, army-type style we saw him essay in Black Hawk Down, offering little by way of empathy for his men (Bana’s character, Kristensen, was killed during a rescue attempt that went bad on the mountain) and being little more than the token Big Chief. Alexander Ludwig’s role, as Patton, feels like a cliche – Patton is the walking embodiment of the New Recruit, inexperienced yet desperate to get into the thick of it. Late in the film we meet Ali Suliman, portraying the crucial role of Muhammad Gulab, an anti-Taliban Afghan resident who helped Luttrell by keeping him safe in his village as the soldiers closed in. Suliman is quietly resolved, masking his motivations well, and while the film doesn’t explicitly disclaim why Gulab helped Luttrell at the risk of his own life – or indeed the life of everyone in his village – a closing credit title card makes it clear that a 2000-year-old code to protect any visitor from harm, regardless of the cost, is what saved Luttrell.
Lone Survivor is harrowing viewing, even now. The deaths of three of the four SEALS (because there’s only a lone survivor, right?) are as impactful as they need to be (particularly Foster’s) and although the script doesn’t deliver on character as well as it could have, you’ll still feel the sting of these men’s deaths as they occur just as keenly. Frankly, if I was Luttrell, the second I got back to base and met up with my commanding officer, there’s be a punch on and a demand for better comms. After all, the comms problems (neither the satellite phone or the radio work back to base during the mission, making the men’s story all that much more hopeless) are what drive the story to its tragic conclusion; had the radio worked, or had the sat-phone worked properly, the lives of three SEALS, and those of the men on a chopper that went down trying to rescue them, could have been saved. I guess if there’s one thing modern war films are particularly good at, it’s showing us the futility and desperate hopelessness of combat.
In terms of overall success, I think Lone Survivor delivers. While the characters are thinly developed, and the focus of Berg’s script seems to be on the action, there’s just enough emotional weight behind each injury, each death, to make it a satisfactory ride regardless. The action is relentlessly brutal, once it kicks in (a side note, the film does spend a fairly large amount of time showing us the four SEALs traipsing through the undergrowth, Behind Enemy Lines style, so if you’re gonna pick a film title, perhaps this could have been the official sequel to Owen Wilson’s cock-eyed actioner from a few years back) Berg and his cast deliver excitement, terror, sadness and ultimately courage, displaying the visceral tenacity the real-world SEALs do every day they’re on mission. Some might baulk at the overly jingoistic “hoo rahh” mentality once more on display here, but while I certainly don’t think Lone Survivor is a positive propaganda piece like Battleship tried to be, Peter Berg’s heart is most definitely in the right place. And that, more than anything, makes this film a good one.