Mark Wahlberg stars in the a story of a tragic mission by a group of Navy SEALs in Lone Survivor! But does the film do the real-life story justice? 411's Jeffrey Harris checks in with his full review!
Directed By: Peter Berg Written By: Peter Berg; Based on the book by Marcus Luttrell Runtime: 121 minutes MPAA Rating: Rated R
SO2 Marcus Luttrell - Mark Wahlberg Lt. Michael Murphy - Taylor Kitsch SO2 Danny Dietz - Emile Hirsch SO2 Matthew Axelson - Ben Foster Lt Cmdr Erik Kristensen - Eric Bana SO2 Shane Patton - Alexander Ludwig Gulab - Ali Suliman Sgt. Hasslert - Jerry Ferrara Taraq - Sammy Sheik
I didn't go into Lone Survivor with much in the way of expectations. As a director, Peter Berg can be incredibly hit and miss where he touches extreme ends of the spectrum. Berg's resume is wildly diverse. He’s made a solid, fun action movie in The Rundown and a well-made high school football-themed drama in Friday Night Lights. Then he made Hancock and Battleship, which were misses. So Berg tends to be a director with mixed results throughout his career. Battleship was a chaotic, high-concept mess and did little to convince me of the talents of Taylor Kitsh. However, Lone Survivor is pleasantly on the other end of Berg’s spectrum and turns out to be a pretty intense, emotional ride.
The story is based on a real-life account of a tragic 2005 mission, Operation Red Wings, by SEAL Team 10 in Afghanistan. The experience was later documented and published by the surviving member of the unit, Marcus Luttrell, in his book of the same name. Following a montage of the rigorous, brutal training soldiers are put through, the story essentially starts at the end. The prologue basically gives away the ending and showing its hand a little too early before going back several days earlier. We are introduced to the central characters of the Navy SEAL team: Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg); Lt. Michael Murphy (Kitsch); Danny Dietz (Hirsch); and Matthew Axelson (Foster). We get to know all these men and some of their fellow officers a bit. They are likable men. They are either married or making wedding arrangements. Murphy is shvitzing over his fiancée wanting some Arabian stallions, and Dietz’s wife wants his input on how to redo the wallpaper of their entire house. In short, despite their rather extreme occupations, they are all blue collar, working class Joes.
Soon the men get their marching orders from their commanding officer Erik Kristensen (Bana). The unit is tasked with an operation to take out a high-tier Taliban target in hostile territory. Murphy and his group are to head in to do basic recon and identify the target before reinforcements move in. Things go as planned at first, but as the group takes position in the mountains, communications gets bad. The operation becomes compromised when the SEALs get in the path of some local goat shepherds. The SEALs take them prisoner, but with communications down they are unable to report the compromise. They are also so deeply embedded in the mountains that leaving the non-combatants tied up would likely mean their deaths. However, letting them go would likely sign their death warrants if they report back to Shah and his forces. Tensions arise as Axelson sees that the best solution is to execute the prisoners, not out of malice, but in wanting to protect the lives of his comrades. Luttrell dissents, pointing out that it violates the rules of engagement. Murphy pulls rank and lets the prisoners go. Murphy decides to pull the unit back to call in for extract as the op has been compromised. The prisoners quickly report to Shah’s forces. Dietz is unable to get communications through to HQ, and the Taliban soldiers close in on the SEALs for a deadly ambush.
The SEALs are then brutally pursued by the anti-coalition forces, who grossly outnumber and outgun the American soldiers. It’s here where the movie becomes it’s most gut-wrenching, since we are forced to witness the near-slaughter of Murphy’s unit. It’s an intense sequence, unlike anything put on film before, shot with a startling, visceral, gritty realism. It’s a far cry from the mind-numbing, over-powering, and ultimately ridiculous visuals and action of Battleship. Berg opts for a more restrained camera this time. The action, while more realistic, lets you absorb some of the emotional strain of the characters as the SEALs are put through the ringer.
It’s hard to put my feelings about this movie into words. As someone who has not been a soldier but comes from a military family, I cannot put into words, nor be thankful enough, for the sacrifices of our fighting men and women. Nothing I have experience comes close to what Navy SEALs have gone through in their training and combat. What Berg here is special in the sense that it provides a perspective on the experience of Navy SEALs. The real-life Marcus Luttrell does appear in the story in a small, featured role.
Most appreciatively, the story is not overtly political or judgmental. However, viewers might draw their own interpretations in that regard. Despite opting to do the “right” thing and free the non-combatants, they tip off Shah’s men, putting the SEALs in grave danger. It was a situation where the answers are not simple or black and white. The movie does offer hope in Luttrell’s encounter with a friendly Afghan local Gulab (Suliman) and his son, who offer him refuge.
In terms of performances, all the actors, even Kitsch, do a good job of mostly disappearing into their roles as Navy SEALs. However, the 42-year-old Bostonian Mark Wahlberg might not have been the best fit playing a 30-year-old Texan Luttrell. Thankfully, Wahlberg doesn’t try and force an accent; but the role does take away from the authenticity to some degree. Ben Foster is probably the best performer in the film, at times looking almost unrecognizable as the blunt, honest, thick-bearded Axelson. Foster is quite an underrated character actor, and this role is no exception. While this is no tour de force for Kitsch, he does solid work. In his previous leading roles, it was tough dealing with his stone-faced, monotone, and near-robotic characteristics and choices. But perhaps, Kitsch was merely uncomfortable being thrust into the spotlight so much and so quickly. He appears much more comfortable and almost at ease in the role of Murphy.
Berg’s direction here is a great improvement from his recent efforts, though at times it does come off a tad manipulative with the framing device. There are also some rather odd instances of product placement that don’t really take you out of the movie, but they are there. Overall, this is probably his strongest film to date, and it could very well be his Black Hawk Down.
The 411: Lone Survivor may not be the best film for a family, holiday viewing outing. But it is definitely an experience worth watching to offer a glimpse of what our fighting men and women go through every day and the sacrifices they make to protect us. Berg does an able job and opts for a more realistic style here, and it pays off well. The story of Marcus Luttrell and his brothers is a tragic one, but it is ultimately one of hope and perseverance. Berg wisely shows our best soldiers the reverence and respect they deserve.