Lone Survivor

Directed By: Peter Berg

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, and Eric Bana

"There’s a storm inside of us.  I’ve heard many team guys speak of this.  A burning.  A river.  A drive.  An unrelenting desire to push yourself harder and further than anyone could think possible."
-SO1 Mark Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg)

I try to stay away from other critics' reviews before I see a movie.  Every now and then, however, my eyes wander, and I find myself delving into the opinion of another on the latest and greatest films arriving at the box office.  A couple of months ago, I was reading a review on Captain Phillips.  While I don't remember who wrote the review or the site on which it was published, I do remember the point they were trying to make about Paul Greengrass's thriller.  As we watch the Navy coming in with their multimillion dollar vessels and weaponry to engage a few Somalians on a lifeboat with a few AK-47s, we all can see that there's a clear mismatch.  We're no longer rooting for the underdog or an equally matched opponent in any fight involving the American military.  We're rooting for an empire.  To some extent, our notion of heroes and villains on the big screen has been subverted in recent years.  As I watched Peter Berg's war drama Lone Survivor this week, I couldn't help but think of that review of Captain Phillips, especially with Navy SEALs who have pushed themselves harder and further than most could ever imagine.

Navy SEALs Mark Luttrell (Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) are serving overseas in the War in Afghanistan.  As part of their assignment Operation Red Wings, the four comrades are tasked by their superior officer Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) with taking out Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami).  While doing some recon work for the operation and monitoring Shah, the SEALs face an unexpected moral crisis.  Several locals stumble upon the SEALs in their hiding spot in the woods.  Now, they must figure out how they will treat these locals, especially given the rules of engagement.  The choice the SEALs make will have deadly consequences for someone — the locals or themselves.

With Act of Valor and Zero Dark Thirty in the last couple of years, we're starting to see quite a few movies about the Navy SEALs.  While I've got tremendous respect for what the SEALs do, I'm not exactly in love with the latest movie about them.  Peter Berg's Lone Survivor gives a respectful retelling of several SEALs' brave journey to hell on earth.  It pulls plenty of emotional heart strings as expected.  It offers an unapologetically pro-American point-of-view.  This is all fine and dandy.  However, this doesn't make for great cinema because the world is just not as black and white as Berg portrays it.  As I sat there and watched Berg's straightforward interpretation of recent American history, I couldn't help but think back to that Captain Phillips review. Our notion of who the heroes are has certainly evolved.

Lone Survivor has plenty of entertainment value, but it has a rocky start.  For the majority of the film, Berg depicts one nonstop battle through the hills and mountains of Afghanistan marked by intensity, brutality, and grit.  For the first half hour of this movie prior to the battle, however, he focuses on establishing relationships and highlighting the camaraderie amongst the group of SEALs.  I'm all for setting the stage and making clear who's who, but spending one quarter of the movie doing so before anything really happens is not terribly entertaining.  Still, I must acknowledge things change for the better once these frogmen leap into action on the battlefield.  At this point in the film, we get a gripping, thrilling war drama.

The cast also delivers solid performances.  With Mark Wahlberg making his annual January appearance at the box office (i.e. Contraband, Broken City), we get a seasoned vet leading this ensemble of young action stars.  For his part as Marcus Luttrell, Wahlberg does what he does best on the big screen.  He's a charismatic badass that brings the emotional gravitas necessary to the role while also connecting with the audience in a quite personable way.  In their supporting roles, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster also give very noble performances.  They each bring dignity to their deaths on the battlefield in their own ways (If the title is not clear enough, only one of them survives).

I clearly have my gripes with Lone Survivor, but it's not a bad movie by any means.  Berg doesn't really deliver a nuanced, thought-provoking interpretation of Luttrell's recount of this horrific experience on the battlefield.  Accordingly, his film does not challenge moviegoers in any meaningful way.  However, he does deliver a respectful picture that honors their sacrifice.  With this in mind, Lone Survivor gets a 0.06% rating.  Have a couple of rounds of beer with this one.