Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor isn't in the same league as other epic war films, but deserves recognition for its visceral depiction of warfare.

Hard-edged, gritty and unrelenting, Lone Survivor is an action packed war film that is equally moving and as courageous as some of the tragic real life characters it is based on. While the story is a visceral achievement in depicting modern warfare, the film itself couldn’t have arrived at a better time than at the start of a new year. And if this trend continues, 2014 should be another great year at the movies!

Written and directed by Peter Berg, Lone Survivor stands testimony to the ill-fated ‘Operation Red Wings’ – a covert ops mission in 2005 that sent four US Navy SEALS into the Afghan mountains to track and eliminate a high ranking Taliban leader. Berg’s narrative uses the first twenty minutes to introduce us to these valiant men. We get a peek into their personal lives – some are newlyweds, others have pictures of their infants. They talk about their hopes and dreams and providing for their families back home. We also get to see what makes them elite soldiers – real life footage of their rigorous training before graduating into Navy SEALs. But out here in a US military base in Afghanistan, their only family is each other. Bound by brotherhood, courage and sacrifice, they are Lieutenant Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Petty Officer Second Class Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Petty Officer Second Class Matt Axelson (Ben Foster). The mission is supervised by Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) via satellite communications at a remote US base.  Outfitted with the latest military hardware, including high caliber firepower and over watch from a high altitude AC-130 gunship, you would expect a bravura show of force. However, Murphy’s Law dictates their fate and the first disaster comes knocking in the form of civilians tending to goats. Almost instantly, they become sitting ducks against a hateful enemy in an extremely unforgiving terrain. It’s all downhill from here and as the title predicts with ominous certainty, only one of these men make it out alive; that too, barely.

As expected in a Peter Berg film, action is heavy and consumes more than half the running time. Battle scenes are thick with the zip and ping of bullets and shrapnel flying in every direction. It gets to such a frenzy that you begin to lose track of who is firing and from where. To counter this, Berg employs frequent ‘pink mist’ scenes of silhouetted blood spilling to signify confirmed hits. Then he cranks it up to a point where you start to think these SEALs are death defying superheroes. But if this film is based on actual events, then heroes they are, because seeing is believing. Also noticeable is the heavy handed vibes of patriotism emitted through the film. This is second nature for Berg, especially if you have seen The Kingdom, a similarly themed action spectacle that speaks volumes on the culture clash associated with the ongoing war on terror. Even with Berg’s signature aspects embedded throughout the film, patriotism is hoisted to a whole new level by honoring the lives of America’s slain sons. As a mass media obituary of sorts, this is reserved for the final segment where we get to see the real men who perished – eighteen individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice so that freedom remains a birthright in the motherland.

Real combat heroism is not about racking up the body count or triggering spectacular explosions. Real soldiers don’t have endless clips of ammo or nerves of steel; or so we have seen in epic war films like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. On the other hand, Lone Survivor is nowhere in the league of an epic war film but it deserves recognition as an action-thriller that packs a wallop in suspense driven firefights. Tension mounts even before the first shot is fired and Berg has some of these pre-skirmish scenes tightly packed into a powder keg. Wahlberg and rest of the supporting cast make this possible, even as stuntmen provide visual plausibility for some unbelievable scenes of physical trauma. And although the film ends on a sombre note, there is an indulgent bit of Hollywoodism in the final act that is almost laughable. But after Berg’s last travesty, Battleship (2012), the overall making of Lone Survivor resonates the progression of a rising action film director. Welcome back Peter Berg! All is forgiven.

Rating: ★★★½☆

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.