Film Review – Lone Survivor
Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor (2013) is difficult to review. No doubt the intentions are in a good place. Recounting the events of “Operation Red Wings,” a failed Navy SEAL mission in which four soldiers were trapped deep behind enemy lines in 2005, we sense Berg and his team wanted to present it in an honorable manner. In that regard, there isn’t much I can say. People who join the military put their lives on the line to serve and protect, and for that they should be respected. But in terms of cinema, does this distinguish itself from other war movies? Not really. I commend Berg on his craft; he’s always been interested in muscular and testosterone-filled types of stories. However, the film lacks subtlety in what it’s trying to say.
We open in Afghanistan. We get acquainted with the four Navy SEALs: Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt “Axe” Axelson (Ben Forster). Opening scenes have the usual light character backgrounds we get in war movies—some men have girlfriends, others have wives, some go over their plans when they return home, others look forward to finally getting called into action, and they all horse around like they’re family. These scenes feel stagy and unnecessary, because we know it’s just a set up for what’s to come.
After we get through the opening, we arrive at the heart of the plot. The men’s commander (Eric Bana) reports the high-level Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd (Yousuf Azami) has been spotted in a small town not far from their base. He lays the mission to the soldiers: airdrop near the surrounding hills and forests, scout the area, identify the target and take him out. The details of the mission seem easy enough to follow, and for these highly trained men, if all goes well they should be in and out without encountering too much enemy contact. Here’s a question: How many war films have showcased a plan going off without a hitch?
Not long after they arrive, they run into problems. One big issue is they lose radio contact with base. That proves to be critical, because soon after losing communications, they are discovered by a small group of goat herders. Without the ability to radio for backup, the men face a moral crisis: Should they kill the herders to prevent their location from being revealed, or should they let them go and try to out run the enemy? This must be a choice soldiers face much more than is known. When facing potential death (and the death of their comrades), the temptation to take the life of a complete stranger must be hard to overcome. “Kill or be killed,” as the saying goes. After a lengthy debate, Murphy takes command and lets the prisoners go.
And here is where we run into the biggest issue of the film. It’s no spoiler to say the Taliban gets informed and starts the hunt for the soldiers, leading to an extended firefight between the two groups. Outmanned and outgunned, the soldiers try all they can to escape, even if it means taking excruciating pain. Berg seems intent during these scenes to depict every cut, wound, and bruise inflicted on them in as brutal a fashion as possible. The men jump off cliffs, tumble down hazardous hillsides, slam onto rocks and trees, all while getting hit with gunfire coming from every direction. This lasts an unbearable length of time. I wonder how the production was able to secure the safety of the stunt men, because it seems as though they just flung themselves down these ravines without a harness or net.
I understand Berg wants to show how bad the situation was to the soldiers (this was based on a true story), but what are we to make of it as an audience? The violence of these scenes goes on for cruel lengths. It’s like he wants to beat us over the head repeatedly. We get the SEAL team made a sacrifice few of us would ever take, but do we need to have scene after scene of them painfully assaulted to understand that? It got to the point where the hope of survival was replaced by an urge to see an end to their misery, in whatever form that may be.
The third act of the film is the strongest part, as the plot takes a turn and provides a twist I was not expecting. I’ll leave the details out, but it examines the idea of who really is an “enemy” and who is a “friend.” This is an interesting development, and would have made a fascinating movie in and of itself. But by the time we arrive to it here, it’s too little too late. Lone Survivor has good parts that make a middling whole. It never augments its strengths—the title alone is an unfortunate spoiler. The intent is sincere, but the execution heavy handed and excessive.