Review: LONE SURVIVOR Offers An Intense, Visceral Depiction Of The War Experience

Featured Critic; New York City, New York
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Review: LONE SURVIVOR Offers An Intense, Visceral Depiction Of The War Experience
Samuel Fuller, who directed some of the best war movies ever made, and who was a combat veteran himself, famously stated, "To make a real war movie would be to fire at the audience from behind a screen." Peter Berg's latest film, Lone Survivor, of course, stops well short of this hypothetical method of bringing the brutal realities of war home to the audience. However, writer-director Berg seems to have taken the ethos behind Fuller's statement deeply to heart in his presentation of warfare. 

Lone Survivor is based on the memoir of the same name by Marcus Luttrell, the sole survivor of the ill-fated Navy SEAL "Operation Red Wings" military mission in Afghanistan that claimed the lives of 19 U.S. soldiers in June 2005. More than any film in recent memory, Lone Survivor immerses us into the dirty, nasty business of warfare, and provides an almost unbearably intense, vicarious experience of the sights and sounds of the battlefield. The film vividly depicts an environment where potential death lurks behind every tree and mountain, and where all the planning, logistics and strategy get whittled away, boiled down to the basic survival instinct of kill or be killed.

Lone Survivor doesn't start out too promisingly. The beginning of the film has Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) lying wounded in a plane, as he's being carried away from the battlefield in Afghanistan. Marcus' voice-over spouts familiar bromides about the brotherhood of war and remembering fallen comrades. This, after an opening credits montage showing basic training, looking like a recruitment ad, leads one to anticipate a simplistically pro-military rah-rah sort of movie. But to writer-director Peter Berg's great credit, this ultimately proves to be far from that kind of film. 

We don't get whole lot of back story on the group of soldiers that the film follows. This core group includes Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny P. Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matthew "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster). However, we're given just enough information, through the dialog and the actors' skillful way of showing the camaraderie of these men, to convey the idea of them as unique individuals with full lives and aspirations for the future. But as each life gets snuffed out, one by one, we are invited to grieve for each life that gets cut short, and for the loved ones they'll leave behind. (This feeling is forcefully brought home by the end credits, scored to Peter Gabriel's cover of David Bowie's "Heroes," which show pictures and video of the real-life soldiers.)

The heart of the film is a central 40 minutes-or-so sequence that depicts the mission, which targets a Taliban commander and his fighters. When their mission is compromised by a group of goat-herders who discover their position, the soldiers are faced with the dilemma of whether to let them go, after which the goat-herders will most likely inform the Taliban, or to kill them and face punishment for violating the rules of engagement by killing unarmed civilians. After some debate, Lt. Murphy makes the executive decision to let the men go, and sure enough, the Taliban is soon able to find them.

The soldiers now must engage in a vicious firefight with the Taliban fighters, hopelessly outnumbered with a handful of U.S. soldiers facing over a hundred Taliban, unable to radio for backup. The sequence that follows is almost unbearably intense, as the soldiers dodge rifle and grenade fire from the Taliban, and tumble down the unforgivingly rough terrain of the mountains. Each fall and hard landing, every bullet and piece of shrapnel tearing though flesh registers with powerful force, immersing us into the scene with vivid immediacy.

The most valuable aspect of Lone Survivor is that it tells its story with a refreshing lack of jingoism, digging deeply in the humanity and heroism that exist on both sides of the American/Afghan divide. To Berg's great credit, the Afghans are not portrayed as simply faceless villains. The Taliban are appropriately presented as murderous, ruthless people, but there are also other Afghans who resist the Taliban's tyranny; they aid the Americans at the risk of their own lives. Luttrell gets crucial assistance from a number of them following the battle, when he finds himself behind enemy lines; the denouement of this story thread is incredibly moving.

Lone Survivor is a technically impressive and emotionally moving film that contains a fine central turn by Wahlberg, and viscerally brings home the human costs of war, eliciting deep respect for those who willingly risk their lives, and lose their lives, to pursue ideals of service and sacrifice for others.

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Ben FosterEmile HirschMarcus LuttrellMark WahlbergPeter BergTaylor Kitsch

More about Lone Survivor

jacklaughingJanuary 10, 2014 11:27 AM

I was disappointed by how jingoistic the last 30 minutes or so of the film are, and how Berg compresses and manufactures events to make the ending more cinematic and at times, laughably cliche. For me, it destroyed the film. And then in researching the true story, I discovered that Luttrell has apparently greatly inflated the number of Taliban fighters over time. First it was 20, then 30, then 50, and then finally 200, where as the AAR and follow-up Pentagon investigation assumes no more than a dozen fighters attacked and chased the SEALs. Whether there were 20 or 200, what happened in those hills is still an amazing story of human survival and heroism. But it bothers me that Berg has chosen to ignore these issues and film the legend. And of course, critics and viewers assume this all to be "true" because it's "based on the real story."

Brian ClarkJanuary 10, 2014 2:28 PM

Respectfully, Fuller also said, "surviving is the only glory in war." I too was put off by how jingoistic this movie was. I'd like to think Fuller would have been as well, even if Berg did attempt to employ his ethos on a purely visceral level.

Alied1333January 10, 2014 3:45 PM

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LennyBittermanJanuary 11, 2014 7:25 PM

Sorry, but this movie was wrong all over the place, it tries to be a slice of life in war, but is so blind by patriotism. The worst part was the treatment of the afgan village, this are the real heroes of the story, the people who really deserve a movie and only get so little time. You remember "The Impossible"???, that movie about the huge tragic tsunami in Thailand that didn't had one single strong thai character in the whole movie, they where just CGU dying in the background. It was their country, but they don't matter, only nice white occidental people matter....

Gopal NatarajanJanuary 11, 2014 11:13 PM

Yeah, the film isn't as "truthy" as it has been made out to be. Never mind that fact that the military has granted so much access to Navy Seal inner-workings in a blatant propaganda push (remember all the hand-wringing over the supposed access granted to the "Zero Dark Thirty" crew? Where's all the indignation now?).

RoboticPlagueJanuary 12, 2014 12:35 AM

This is a war movie only the people can take as many bullets to the body as Chow yun-fat in a John Woo movie.

Christopher BourneJanuary 12, 2014 2:15 AM

Your critiques are well taken, but let's remember what LONE SURVIVOR is exactly: it's a Hollywood movie based on one man's memoir, not a documentary, not claiming to to be any sort of journalism. That's why they tell us at the beginning, "based on a true story," and not "this is what really happened." Compression, condensing, adding fictionalized elements: these are common dramatic licenses used in feature films based on real stories, so none of this should shock anyone at this point. So I don't think it's quite realistic to expect some kind of anti-war critique out of this material.

As I say in my review, indeed, in the beginning LONE SURVIVOR threatens to be simple patriotic cheerleading. But once the film settles in on the soldiers as characters, and begins its depiction of the experiential aspects of war in the battle, and in the Afghan village afterward, I felt all of that was pretty much dispensed with. I'm reading a lot of accusations of "jingoism" and "blind patriotism" here, but without specific examples from the film cited to support this, I'm frankly not persuaded.