Review – Lone Survivor

If it’s good old-fashioned jingoism you’re after then you’ve come to the right place with Peter Berg’s dramatisation of a US Navy SEAL mission gone bad.

In case you were wondering who the Lone Survivor is...

In case you were wondering who the Lone Survivor is…

In case you were wondering who the lone survivor in question is, the film is based on hospital corpsman Marcus Luttrell’s book of the same name. So there you go.

Although the ultimate fate of the four members of SEAL Team 10 tasked with carrying out reconnaissance and surveillance onĀ  bloodthirsty Taliban leader Ahmad Shah in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush region in 2005 is given away by the title (for those who missed or can’t remember the original story, anyway), it doesn’t stop Berg’s film from largely being an intense, if overly patriotic, experience.

Things go pear-shaped for Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) in Lone Survivor

Things go pear-shaped for Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) in Lone Survivor

Once the promising director of Friday Night Lights (2004), Berg subsequently turned his talents to blockbuster fare, to the extent that his previous film, 2012’s Battleship, was so dumb it would have made Michael Bay proud. Lone Survivor may contain plenty of action, but it’s of a far more visceral and harrowing nature than what we saw in his last movie.

The film follows the squad – Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), communications specialist Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), sonar technician Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) and team leader Lieutenant Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) – as they’re dropped into the Hindu Kush and go about tracking down Shah, who’s seen at the start of the film ordering the beheading of an Afghan villager for allegedly helping the Americans, just to stress how evil he is.

The scale of the problem presents itself in Lone Survivor

The scale of the problem presents itself in Lone Survivor

Things soon take a turn for the unfortunate when they run into a group of goat herders, and truly go up the swanny when they’re ambushed by a small army led by Shah. A mission of stealth and surveillance turns into one of survival (well, for one of them anyway) as they’re forced to take increasingly desperate and dangerous risks to escape.

The film opens with an extended montage of real life Navy SEAL recruits being put through their paces. As well as making abundantly clear just how darned tough these guys are, Berg also uses the footage to emphasise the band of brothers mentality forged among those who are willing to put themselves through such hell. The point is pushed home further courtesy of post-rockers Explosions In The Sky’s stirring soundtrack. Brotherhood is a familiar theme in most war movies, but is particularly accentuated here.

Navy SEAL Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) fights for his life in Lone Survivor

Navy SEAL Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) fights for his life in Lone Survivor

Before Operation Red Wings gets under way (the targets are all named after brands of beer in true US military fashion), Berg works to develop an affininty between the squad and audience. It’s easy to buy Wahlberg and Kitsch as military types because of their previous action man turns, but it takes longer to accept Foster and Hirsch in the roles as it’s such a switch from what they’re best known for. That being said, the group make a convincing enough squad who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It takes a good long while before the crap splats the fan, but when it does the film doesn’t let up and Berg reconstructs the prolonged gunfight between the SEALs and Shah’s men with gusto through an effective use of sweaty close-ups, first person perspective, fantastic sound design and convincing acting. It’s chaotic stuff, just as you’d imagine it would have been in real life.

Taliban in their sights in Lone Survivor

Taliban in their sights in Lone Survivor

What lets the film down, however, is Berg’s insistence on wrapping the men in the Stars and Stripes and painting them as all-American heroes (even going so far as to feature Peter Gabriel’s rendition of David Bowie’s Heroes over stills and footage of those who died in the operation at the end of the film). One soldier’s fate appears to borrow the famous Christ image of Willem Dafoe in Platoon and the use of slow motion in the more emotive scenes borders on crass.

It’s both extremely heavy-handed and unnecessary and takes you out of what could and should have been an absorbing and gut-wrenching story of brotherhood, sacrifice and humanity in the face of grave danger.

27 comments

  1. Mark Walker

    Uh-huh! Yet more propaganda I see? I’m really not a fan of these American going-ho types but I will give it a look regardless. If only to are the propaganda machine in full swing. Great review Mark!

  2. Gene

    Good notes on needing to warm up to Hirsch and Foster as military men. I saw some shades of Foster’s character in 3:10 to Yuma in his portrayal here and I felt that made him a little more believable. I do have to disagree with your assessment of it being “overly patriotic”. I felt like it was pretty appropriate in those terms. I mean, they’re U.S. soldiers, of course they’re wrapped in the stars and stripes :) The slow-motion was a little unnecessary, but if you’re familiar with the book I think it was probably due to Luttrell’s high view of Murphy. Good review!

    • Three Rows Back

      Appreciate the feedback. Regarding your retort on the film’s patriotism, I think there are ways of getting that across that can be more subtle. Although not a film, I think the TV miniseries Band of Brothers struck the right balance. Nothing wrong with patriotism – these guys are US soldiers after all – I just felt Berg should have trusted the audience more to take away that message without it being forced as much as it was.

  3. CMrok93

    It’s sort of propaganda, and it sort of isn’t. What I mainly took away from this story was that these are men that died, and it may or may not have been for a cause, but they should always be remembered nonetheless. Good review.

    • Three Rows Back

      Thanks Dan. It’s a story that should be told, that’s for sure. I could have just done without the patriotism being pushed quite so hard. Comparisons to Black Hawk Down are inevitable I guess, although it’s more nuanced than that film.

  4. Pingback: Flashforward: February’s Most Anticipated Films | Flashback/Backslide
  5. thycriticman

    Well written review! And accurate. While worth a watch, and an entertaining ride, it could have been much more powerful then the final result was. Too much time on trying to create a team of Captain America’s, and I am not talking about the patriotism. I have talking about their apparent superpowers.

  6. Tom

    Our reviews are pretty similar, then! I think I ended up being turned off a little more by the gratuitous patriotism than you but that’s just a matter of personality at that point. I also was slightly distracted with Wahlberg here. I like the guy, but he’s too pronounced to make his portrayal really excruciating to watch. What he goes through is undeniably hellish, but at the end of the day he’s an A-list actor who can never die. That’s what I was constantly thinking in the ending clips, anyway. Good stuff dude.

  7. ruth

    I’m not fond of war films in general though I’m willing to make an exception w/ certain films. This is not one of those however, I don’t know, I’m kind of bored seeing Mark Wahlberg playing similar characters, or I should say playing various characters in a similar way. I hear ya about the flag-waving propaganda style taking away from an otherwise compelling story about sacrifice, that’s another reason I’m not too interested in this one.

    • Three Rows Back

      I tend to be a big fan of war movies; maybe that’s because I’m a guy! It’s got some real style and the central gunfight is pretty gut-wrenching, but yes, it’s got too many faults.

  8. Movie Review World

    My thoughts exactly. Although most of America seem to be lapping this one up, I found as soon as the first bullet was shot the film descended from an intriguing character piece into a below average actioner were emotional manipulation seemed to be its only objective.

      • Movie Review World

        Absolutely, a real shame. I sometimes feel film makers let what they think audiences want and what sells get in the way of their own focus, direction and artistic integrity. Effectively selling out to the masses and this is the feeling I got with Lone Survivor.

  9. The Northern Plights

    Good call re the overly patriotic feel of the film, it was the one thing that bugged me. Having said that, I did feel that what was presumably a riveting book and account of the real event did not require such OTT action sequences which were there (probably) to satiate the desires of the average ugg-it’s-a-war-film fans. Quite liked the unrelenting nature of it, which I felt gave a similar sense to anti-skinnys movie, Black Hawk Down. I did feel it was a bit cynical for Berg to give the Taliban kid (Skinny 2.0) an evil-glaring face, but the Good Skinny 2.0 child a nice, innocent-never-planted-an-ICD doe-eyed perma-expression.

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