Sunday, January 12, 2014

"Lone Survivor" (2013)

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch and Ben Foster
Written and directed by Peter Berg
Rated R - Strong violence, language
Running Time: 121 Minutes

In 2005, a four-man Navy SEAL recon team consisting of Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) is dropped onto a mountain in Afghanistan. Their mission is to scout the area surrounding a remote village where a Taliban leader named Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami) is believed to be hiding a week after orchestrating an attack that killed 20 US Marines.

At first, the only trouble the men run into is problem with their communications. But high up on the mountain, they manage to locate their target and set the stage for phase two of the operation. But while waiting for their backup, the team is discovered by three goat shepherds, one of whom is just a young boy. After a brief argument, the team decides to let the shepherds go and change positions.

Unfortunately, one of the shepherds alerts Shah's men that the SEALs are hiding up in the woods, and soon enough the mountain is crawling with enemies. The men are outnumbered and outgunned. Not knowing if or when backup will arrive, the team must rely on only themselves as the enemy forces close in from all sides.

Based on the real-life Luttrell's memoir, "Lone Survivor" is definitely an ode to US Navy SEALs and the training and ordeals they endure. As a film, it's well made and often thrilling, though apparently it takes a number of liberties in order to make it that way.

I haven't read Mr. Luttrell's book, so I can't really comment on what's changed, but as usual, I like to take the film for what it is rather than what's been altered. The characters in the film all have a very easy chemistry with each other, making some of the early scenes of them and their life on base some of the film's highlights. Sprinkled throughout the middle and second half of the film are also a few moments of levity between the men that help relieve some of the pressure for the audience.

The actors all deliver, but at the same time, there's not a whole lot of depth here. The film makes these characters human through their interactions, but once they're dropped onto the mountain in Afghanistan, they're pretty much all business. The single scene in which the team argues over what to do with the goat shepherds is intense, maybe even more so than some of the film's lengthy shootouts or deaths.

Aside from that scene, the film doesn't really explore the morality of these men's actions, and that might be the film's only big failing. Because for how thrilling and well made it is, it also ends up feeling somewhat slight. It doesn't feel like it does enough to make me care about the characters in more than a surface, perfunctory way. I still cared, but not as much as I think the film wanted me to.

But, plotwise, you know what you're getting into with a film titled "Lone Survivor" right? The fact that the movie opens with Wahlberg's Luttrell being airlifted back to base and nearly dying on the operating table practically spoils everything. It's possible this is meant to make the events of the film feel more tragically inevitable, but I didn't have that particular feeling as an audience member. What was more successful was creating suspense during the action sequences of the middle of the middle of the film. Because although I recalled that Luttrell is the only one to make it out alive, the film has a keen "will they make it?" sense during these parts.

The film is also keen to make sure that although the Taliban fighters are essentially faceless, nameless cannon fodder, we do not think that all of the people of Afghanistan are evil, AK-47-toting nutjobs screaming for the death of America. Thankfully, there are some kindly folk who come to Luttrell's aid, and it helps keep the film from being an entirely one-sided, ra-ra-America piece.

The action sequences are impressive to say the least. Most of the gunfights involve lots of real stuntmen running at each other and fighting, real splatters of fake blood (yeah, I know how that sounds). Special note has to go to a couple of sequences in which the team retreated down rocky cliffsides - painfully. The filmmakers apparently had real stuntmen throwing themselves onto rocks, and it all looks incredibly real and painful on film. It's one of the movie's more effective action sequences, and had the audience in the theatre reacting audibly.

If you're looking for a factually-accurate telling of this story, I'm not sure "Lone Survivor" will do it for you - you may want to read Mr. Luttrell's memoir instead. "Lone Survivor" is a pretty good way to spend a couple hours at the theatre. I didn't find it a powerful war film, but like "Black Hawk Down," to be a thrilling one. If these sorts of films are your thing, you'll find a lot to like in "Lone Survivor."

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