LONE SURVIVOR – The Review
The battleground has been the backdrop for countless film dramas over the decades. Many of those classics center around a particular showdown, or perhaps a mission. We watch in awe as our heroes plan out their important task and execute those same plans, often having to quickly improvise when an unforseen obstacle arises. But what happens when the unforseen cannot be overcome. Perhaps the truest test of the spirit happens when all goes wrong and the odds are overwhelming. That’s been the inspiration for countless historical epics going back to THE ALAMO and ZULU to the more recent BLACK HAWK DOWN. LONE SURVIVOR uses the current conflict in the Middle East, much as THE HURT LOCKER did, to tell us a true tale of heroism when a 2005 mission went off the rails and a quartet fought for their lives against an unending enemy attack. Yes, there’s drama, action, and just as much suspense as Bigelow’s Oscar winner and the conclusion of ZERO DARK THIRTY combined.
As the film opens, after real footage of seal team in training during the opening credits, we meet the title soldier. Then we backtrack three days to the wee hours of June 27, 2005. As the men of the special operations camp in Afghanistan awake they email their spouses, talk about upcoming nuptials, and engage in an early morning foot race around the base. After an induction ceremony for a “newbie” seal, Kristensen (Eric Bana) gives the word that “Operation Red Wings” is on. A small squad will deploy outside an Afghan village with a mission to capture or kill Ahmad Shah, a high-ranking member of the Taliban who was the mastermind of an ambush that killed several US soldiers. That small squad consists of team leader Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Matt Axelson (Ben Foster), and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg). But after deploying to a steep hillside overlooking the village, things don’t go as planned. The surrounding mountain range prevents Dietz from getting a communications signal. Worst of all, the men are soon discovered by several local goat herders. Before they can succeed in contacting the base for reinforcements and a rescue, the foursome are surrounded by countless Taliban forces. Their only choice is to fight and try to survive until help can arrive. Is there any chance against the treacherous terrain and overwhelming odds?
Although the film’s title spoils the outcome, each actor gives such terrific performances as these true life heroes, they make us hope against all reason that they will somehow emerge unscathed. Wahlberg shoulders most of the film bringing very human qualities to the almost-unstoppable Luttrell. He’s full of calm determination even when the mission begins to fall apart. His struggle to keep from blacking out from pain while being frustrated at attempts to communicate with the locals is heartbreaking. He must not show his confusion while trying to decipher body language in order to know who he can trust. Kitsch is a strong leader who commits himself to keeping his brothers alive and concealing his fears. His early conversations with Wahlberg concerning his soon-to-be-bride’s wedding gift are funny and endearing. Hirsch as Dietz is all youthful exuberance as he fights to find a signal and later summons up his courage as the enemy surprises him. Foster is the cool, level-headed old pro of the group who shows his cynical side when dealing with the herders, but later shows an optimistic side when things go south. Bana is a compassionate, quick thinking and acting leader while Alexander Ludwig is funny and touching as the wide-eyed young addition who burst with pride at the thought of being accepted into this elite brotherhood.
Actor Peter Berg does a masterful job of directing his own adaptation of the celebrated memoir and cements his reputation as a truly gifted film maker. He slows the pace for the opening sequences at the base to give us a glimpse of the often casual tone of non-combat life. The fellas horse around, shoot the breeze, and wait for the word from the top, the word that will put all their training and skills to use. There’s always that slight sense of tension. And then that tension finally spills over on that rocky hillside. We’re looking through their rifle scopes, catching brief flashes of a tunic or scarf. Like the men, we’re not sure where to focus our attention. And when the bullets fly they tear off chunks of flesh and cloth like jet-propeled piranhas. We’re stunned that the squad can push through unimaginable pain. This is especially true during the film’s most harrowing, excruciating sequence when the men have no choice but to hurl themselves down the rocks and trees. Most of all Berg shows us the undefeatable spirit of these men who willingly charge into danger’s path when most of us would scramble for shelter. And all the while sharing a love and respect for their fellow soldiers, their brothers. LONE SURVIVOR is a passionate tribute to all those who serve. Yes, much of it is brutal but it’s ultimately uplifting. This film sets a high standard of excellence that future films set in the current conflict will find very tough to match. Stick around for the end credits to get a look at those real noble warriors who gave their all.
4.5 Out of 5