(Editor’s Note: This review was initially posted on November 14th, 2013 following the film’s premiere at AFI Fest. We’re republishing it now that the film has opened to a wider audience.)
Peter Berg’s most recent film was last year’s board game adaptation Battleship, a bloated, lifeless imitation of a Michael Bay action film with zero heart and a godawful screenplay. Thankfully, Lone Survivor is the complete opposite: it’s a small-scale true story with strong performances, clear cut action sequences, a tension-filled script, and a powerful emotional core. This was the film Berg wanted to make a few years ago, but Universal negotiated with him to make Battleship first; now we’re seeing what the writer/director can do when he has some real investment in his story, and the result is a thematically rich and complex tale of brotherhood, morality, and, of course, survival.
Mark Wahlberg plays Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the eponymous single survivor of Operation Red Wings, a 2005 mission in which a group of SEALs were tasked with killing a Taliban leader in Afghanistan. We know from the title that things go wrong, and the opening moments of the film reveal foreshadow what is to come – a near-death Luttrell, bloodied and wounded, is being airlifted back to base. Before we get to see what happened, we flash back to three days prior and are introduced to the other members of the team: Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster). Berg does a serviceable job showcasing the relationship between soldiers and with a necessary exposition dump about their upcoming mission, but it’s when the guys get out on a mountain overlooking the target village that we truly find out who they are.
Beautiful camerawork by Berg’s go-to cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler and the reverb-heavy score by Steve Jablonsky highlight the beauty of the landscape, but there’s a wave of tragedy undercutting it. The director slowly builds tension; we know this ends tragically, and the pristine hillside will soon be painted in blood. During the mission, the soldiers are discovered by a group of villagers, and it’s here that the movie starts to get interesting. The mission is compromised, and the soldiers must decide how to proceed: do they let the villagers go, leave them tied up in the woods, or kill them? Berg’s script forces his characters to face the complexities of war without being overly political, and as the men contemplate what to do, they – and by extension, we as the audience – see that the morally right decision may not always be the best strategic one. A decision is made, and the consequences are catastrophic – radio communication is apparently sketchy in the Afghan mountains, and the team is left alone to face off against hundreds of armed Taliban warriors.
What follows is one of the most intense battle sequences committed to film in the past decade. For what feels like thirty minutes, the SEALs engage in a firefight of epic proportions as they constantly try to gain a decent position to defend themselves against the onslaught of enemies. Bullets fly and blood pours, but it’s eventually the landscape itself that proves the most harrowing for our guys to endure. Backed to the edge of a rocky cliff, the guys hurl themselves off as a last resort, and Berg doesn’t shy away from the incredibly painful, bone-breaking impact of flesh against rock as they hurtle down the mountainside. Things escalate even further from there as the Taliban members bring out rocket launchers and continue their relentless pursuit of the SEALs, ultimately leading to the death of Luttrell’s team members, leaving him broken and alone in the woods below.
But it doesn’t stop there. In the third act, Luttrell is again discovered by a group of Afghan villagers, but this time they drag him to their village, patch him up, and protect him from the Taliban. Until this point, the film has essentially treated the Afghanistanis as “the other,” with most of the Taliban fighters having no distinguishing characteristics (even their faces are often covered with scarves, as if not to purposefully not allow us any insight into them as people). But Luttrell’s – and our – preconceptions are tested when he must trust these villagers to save his life. It’s a compelling way to wrap up a story that has already presented us with some interesting thematic challenges, and it works in large part due to Wahlberg’s down-to-Earth performance.
Lone Survivor isn’t without its problems – the Americans are essentially portrayed as superheroes right up until their deaths, for example – but Berg fundamentally succeeded in making a war film that remains refreshingly apolitical throughout. There’s no question that the film makes you question the reason for all of this bloodshed as we’re watching the horrors these guys had to endure, but it also doesn’t condemn them for participating in it. Berg set out to create a movie that was unapologetically patriotic, and he accomplished that goal in an exciting, thoughtful way. Here’s hoping he has as much passion for his next film as he did for this one. Until next time…
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