REVIEW: Lone Survivor [2013]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 121 minutes | Release Date: December 27th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director(s): Peter Berg
Writer(s): Peter Berg

“A lot of moving parts”

If you’ve read Marcus Luttrell‘s memoir Lone Survivor (co-written by Patrick Robinson), you’d know it was primed for a cinematic adaptation. There’s Navy SEAL boot camp, the infamous “hell week”, the brotherly bond formed between team members, and the courage under fire each has been trained to cultivate and utilize in the field. It’s a tragic tale with a spoiler title that details the heroic deaths Marcus witnessed after a rules of engagement decision proved fatal as well as the unlikely saviors who helped ensure the world found out what Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz, Matthew Axelson, and many others did for him and America. It’s therefore no surprise The Kingdom director Peter Berg sought the rights or subjected himself to helming Battleship so Universal Studios would give him the go-ahead. It’s a story that must be told.

I respect Berg for going full throttle by living with Luttrell, the SEALs, and even camping in Iraq while writing the screenplay. If anyone in Hollywood could do the Operation Red Wings story correctly it’s him. However, Hollywood is still Hollywood and unfortunately the process itself can’t prevent liberties from being taken or nuance getting erased. For every great decision (condensing twenty-five percent of the novel’s in-depth description of becoming a SEAL into a short credit sequence showing actual BUD/S training) there’s one that panders. And sadly the stuff glossed over is the most interesting part. So if you’re wondering by the end why a father (Ali Suliman’s Gulab) and young son (Rohan Chand) risk their lives to protect Marcus against the Taliban, buy the book and understand the Pashtun tribes’ complexity and cultural tradition lokhay warkawal.

That said, as a Hollywood action film during wartime, Lone Survivor is effective on its own merits whether a bastardized Cliff Notes of the novel or not. Berg made a conscious decision to shoot only what happened on the Operation, turning what lasted several days into three, and played with time even further to enhance the emotional resonance of tragic surprises (if you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean). Honestly, I’m okay with all of this because the heart Luttrell poured into this story to honor those who fell is what truly matters at the end of the day. Immortalizing Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Axe (Ben Foster), Shane (Alexander Ludwig), and Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen’s (Eric Bana) strength, compassion, and integrity for families and strangers alike is what Marcus lived to achieved.

We get the comradery, brotherly love, and unwavering professionalism (when not hazing the newbie) right from the start as Murphy awakens to an email from his fiancé about buying a horse for a wedding present. He stumbles into Luttrell’s (Mark Wahlberg) bunk to get his opinion as a way to subtly infer upon facts not implicitly stated such as the two being best of friends and Marcus growing up around the beasts his whole life while Mom conditioned them in Texas. We get a little about Danny as he contemplates his wife’s interior design choices and Axe is shown instant messaging his love Cindy—each guy with a smile and the confidence to believe their next day’s mission will be like any other. Tragically, they couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Berg’s centerpiece becomes the inevitable firefight these four SEALs battle in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province against the target they were meant to surveil—Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami). Some details are changed from the book for added effect while others interestingly provide less, but the crux of the arduous engagement remains intact. Retreats down the sheer mountain are shot with a brutal physicality, the “never say die” attitudes authentic and rarely contrived, and the ever-mounting wounds bloodied and raw. We watch many Afghani extras get their heads blown to bits through riflescopes and in the clear while bullets fly non-stop between the two parties. And every single death carefully finds that balance between heroic and tragic as each man stays alive at least five kill shots longer than a guy like me would have.

It’s an intense sequence you won’t soon forget full of the carnage Luttrell described against an Explosions in the Sky (and Steve Jablonsky) post-rock score that stirs emotions like they did in Berg’s Friday Night Lights. While the time and energy spent here is worth it, I can’t help be disappointed at the third act’s depiction of what was more than some random act of kindness. Gulab’s protection—I actually don’t think they ever say his name, a real shame considering Luttrell still fights to get he and his family American visas—has roots in Taliban history with cultural ideals of respect and honor getting unsurprisingly ignored in favor of a more “We hate Taliban and love our American warriors” mentality. But manufacturing a young son for heartstring tugs? That’s an inexcusably overwrought bit of Hollywood fluff.

Luttrell’s staunch support of George W. Bush and strong opinions about the liberal media inferring upon the decision that ultimately seals their fate is also excised—something I understand considering the country’s climate and a studio not wanting to alienate its audience. While these things make the novel worthwhile despite its unpolished prose and tendency for repetition, I get more than most how films and books are separate mediums to be taken on their own merits. With that mindset in the foreground, I will say that Lone Survivor proves an effective war film possessed by stellar acting and impressive visual verisimilitude. As someone who enjoys delving deeper into character motivations and international customs unlike my own, however, I can’t stop knowing the film ultimately becomes more an example of jingoistic propaganda than the insightfully researched account Luttrell intended.


photography:
[1] (L to R) Michael Murphy (TAYLOR KITSCH), Marcus Luttrell (MARK WAHLBERG), Matt “Axe” Axelson (BEN FOSTER) and Danny Dietz (EMILE HIRSCH) in “Lone Survivor”, the incredible story of four Navy SEALs on a covert mission to neutralize a high-level Taliban operative who are ambushed by enemy forces in the mountains of Afghanistan. The film is based on The New York Times bestselling tale of heroism, courage and survival. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2013 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] (L to R) Michael Murphy (TAYLOR KITSCH) and Marcus Luttrell (MARK WAHLBERG) in “Lone Survivor”, the incredible story of four Navy SEALs on a covert mission to neutralize a high-level Taliban operative who are ambushed by enemy forces in the mountains of Afghanistan. The film is based on The New York Times bestselling tale of heroism, courage and survival. Photo Credit: Gregory R. Peters Copyright: © 2013 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[3] (L to R) Marcus Luttrell (MARK WAHLBERG) is treated by Gulab (ALI SULIMAN) and his young son (ROHAN CHAND) in “Lone Survivor”, the incredible story of four Navy SEALs on a covert mission to neutralize a high-level Taliban operative who are ambushed by enemy forces in the mountains of Afghanistan. The film is based on The New York Times bestselling tale of heroism, courage and survival. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2013 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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