Reel Review | Lone Survivor

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“Lone Survivor” is a dramatic retelling of the events that took place during the failed Afghan war mission called “Operation Red Wings”, in which a four man SEAL team was ordered to locate and take down a high ranking Taliban leader in 2005. The movie is based off of the book from Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, who was in fact the lone survivor of the botched mission. This has been a pet project of director Peter Berg ever since he read the book in 2007. He even went as far as to agree to direct “Battleship” ,from Universal Pictures, as long as they would allow him to make this film- for which they owned the rights. Thankfully, Berg steers away from the popcorn motif of “Battleship” and tells this story in a much more realistic manner closer to that of “The Kingdom” which he made in 2007. After an opening montage of real footage of the training that each Navy SEAL has to endure, the film falls into familiar territory of slowly creating a small level of back story of each of the SEALs. All of it comes across as a paint by numbers war film, albeit a well made one, until the start of the 2nd act in which the SEALs find themselves surrounded by essentially an army of the Taliban. This act alone features some of the most gut wrenching and brutal images you’re likely to see for years, but it is also the one reason why the film should be seen. It’s an intimate portrayal of what each of these men would do for one another in the face of certain death. If you’re not moved by the events during this part of the film, then you need to stop playing “Call of Duty” and reconnect with the real world. It’s a punch in the gut experience that you’ll be thinking of hours after you’ve seen it. Sadly, the 3rd act can’t keep up to frenetic pacing of the gunfight and comes across as being rushed, even though it’s a vital element of the full story. I personally feel if Berg and company dedicated another 15-20 minutes to this part of the story, we would be discussing where the film would rank among the greatest war films ever made, instead of being just being a good film.

For a film that is based on a brutal gunfight, it’s really hard to judge the level of acting involved since they are essentially reacting to the chaos around them. That being said, all of them work well enough with the limited time they have, especially Taylor Kitsch who could propel himself back to star status with his performance as Michael Murphy, the group’s leader. On the other hand, Mark Wahlberg does the best he can with the role of Marcus Luttrell, but I always saw Mark Wahlberg on the screen and never fully got into his portrayal. Rating: 17 / 25

One of the reasons why Marcus Luttrell signed off on Peter Berg to direct his story is his innate ability to feature the finer details of an action scene and that is on display in spades during “Lone Survivor”. Berg is able to showcase his many talents as a visual director between the first two acts. He shoots New Mexico (the stand-in for Afghanistan) in such a picturesque way that it shows the hidden beauty of a barren landscape. From the orange glow of dawn to extreme long shots of the surrounding mountains, many of these shots would feel right at home on a BBC nature documentary. But it’s during the 2nd act where Berg truly flexes his visual creativity by placing the audience in the middle of what seems to be a never-ending gunfight. He’s able to visually show the fog of war, but still keep some sense of geography for the audience to cling to while bullets are zinging by in every direction. The whole act becomes more of an experience than just watching a film on a screen. On top of that, he mixes handheld shots with tracking shots in a way that you never notice the difference between the two. It’s excellent film making and really pulls you into the brutality that each of the men endured as they faced countless Taliban. It’s easily the best visual work Peter Berg has done to date. Rating: 24 / 25

With the visual images being so powerful, the film could easily fall apart if the audio didn’t meet that same level. Thankfully that is not the case as I feel the audio in this film ranks up there with that featured in “Gravity” as the best of the year. Granted, the material allows for a creative use of sound, but they’ve taken it to an all-new level with “Lone Survivor”. You feel every bullet that pierces flesh and every explosion that throws the SEALs bodies around like rag dolls. All of this envelopes the theater, truly making you feel in the middle of the chaos. But the true standout element, as it relates to the audio, is when the men have to throw themselves off a cliff and tumble hundreds of feet down the mountainside. Every collision they have on this journey, be it rocks or tree branches is cranked up to eleven. You could literally grasp the pain each character was feeling through the audio itself. It’s an overwhelming audio experience to sit through, but also a technically amazing at the same time.

The music may not meet the level of the audio, but it is very effective in accentuating the on-screen action while never making anything ever feel forced. The first half of the film takes on a dream like musical approach as the guitar-based band Explosions in the Sky create mini-symphonies that parlay hope yet doom at the same time. Berg worked with the band before for his film “Friday Night Lights” and as with that film their work here is second to none. Composer Steve Jablonsky covers the orchestral part of the score, and sadly most of it is forgettable. It’s not that it’s bad, but when compared to the dual nature of the music from Explosions in the Sky, it come across as somewhat vanilla. Rating: 23 / 25

To call the film entertaining is a little misleading. It’s an experience similar to that of “Black Hawk Down” in that it’s important to see, but not necessarily because it’s an entertaining film. I’ve seen many claiming that the film is either jingoistic or anti-war and to be honest all of these people couldn’t  be further from the truth. Yes, it is true that the Afghan people are portrayed as one- dimensional. They are either the evil Taliban or the under-developed villagers who take in Luttrell during the third act. As I said before, if the 3rd act was fleshed out a little more we would be discussing one of the true classic of the war genre, but that not what this story is about! “Lone Survivor” is about the bond of brotherhood that each of these men has for the man next to them and the fact that they are willing to give up everything for the safety of another. I saw the film with a friend of mine who serves in the military and unbeknownst to him he was sitting by two men who actually served in Afghanistan. By the end of the film, all three men embraced one another with tears in their eyes as if they had known each other for a lifetime. Simply put, that is what makes “Lone Survivor” worth seeing. It might not qualify as entertaining, but it is a heart wrenching experience that will make you feel closer to the person you’re sitting next to, regardless if you’ve served in the military or not. Rating: 20 / 25

Overall Rating – 84 / 100

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Dave Ziemer has been reviewing movies for over ten years. He is the founder and was the Program Director of SiriusXM Radio's Cinemagic channel.