THE STORY – In 2005 Afghanistan, Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster) deploy on a mission of surveillance and to take out Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. Though spotted by goatherds, Luttrell and his team decide not to kill them. But one of the Afghans alerts a group of Taliban fighters to the invaders, and a terrible battle ensues, in which the SEALs find themselves hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned.
THE CAST – Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster & Eric Bana
THE TEAM – Peter Berg (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 121 Minutes
By Beatrice Loayza
“Lone Survivor,” director Peter Berg’s first of several collaborations with Mark Wahlberg, is based on the real-life events of U.S. Navy SEALS Operation Red Wings, where a four-man team tasked with bringing down Taliban leader Ahmad Shah find themselves hunted down and tragically outnumbered after their cover is blown by a group of civilian herders, one of which turns out to be a Taliban sympathizer. For the bulk of the film, Michael Murphy (Berg regular, Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster), and the titular lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), maneuver around the treacherous mountain terrain of the Hindu Kush struggling to make contact with their unit’s base, all the while fighting for their lives against what seems like the ceaseless assault of Taliban forces.
While Berg pays lip-service to the inner lives of servicemen, any attempt at reaching a deeper emotional hue in Murphy, Dietz, Axelson, or Luttrell’s backstories falls flat with war movies tropes, namely painfully generic marriage complaints, and tired references to each soldier’s inner “boy” (Anchorman posters, comic strips, morning races. In one scene, Wahlberg is inexplicably holding a football the entire time). Boys or men? Either way, these soldiers wake up with their weapons by their pillows, suggesting a military reality that should rightfully be acknowledged as extraordinary to the average person.
Indeed, our four heroes are trained and hardened to withstand bullet wounds, shrapnel incisions, and rocky falls from high places, the marks of which steadily accumulate on their bodies over the course of the film. Navy SEALS are certainly super-human in this regard, but they’re still human, and eventually, the onslaught of stray bullets and bombs sustained goes from facial scars to full on Two-Face (in the case of Ben Foster’s Axelson) as they tumble down the side of a mountain in search of flat ground. The team’s struggle against the Taliban is a complete shit-show for the characters, and an impressive technical feat for the audience to behold– with sustained, hair-raising effects and stunt work that makes you marvel at, if not decry, the consequences of modern warfare on the body. In particular, the scenes when the four are shown tumbling down the mountain are immersive and dynamic. In a series of fast cuts to each soldier, we witness the smashing of bones as the men collide with trees and boulders– truly jaw-clenching stuff. It should come as no surprise that “Lone Survivor” took home the 2014 SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble.
Foster and Kitsch deliver the only notable dramatic performances among the mayhem, with Foster’s Axelson giving a heartfelt final speech as he loses hope in their survival, and Kitsch’s lieutenant Murphy wrestles with his position’s responsibility of making life or death decisions for his men. Meanwhile, Wahlberg’s performance as Marcus Luttrell is underwhelming, never veering too far from his signature tough-guy punkish attitude, though the delirium of being reduced to a pulp of your original state might be a good enough excuse for one-dimensionality. While perhaps true to its source material, it was disappointing to have Wahlberg carry the majority of the film solo.
“Lone Survivor” might come off as offensive or akin to right-wing propaganda in its black and white depiction of Afghanistan and America’s role as “ sacrificial savior” in the region, yet there are elements of moral complexity that I found redeeming; namely the team’s initial spat on ethical grounds, and the film’s nerve-wracking finale when Luttrell is harbored at an Afghan village. While the film’s pro-military and patriotic bent is bright as day, Berg doesn’t hold back in portraying all the ugliness of war. If anything, “Lone Survivor” doesn’t necessarily have “bad” politics, so much as they’re annoyingly basic ones. With a cheesy script and shallow characterization to boot, this movie isn’t really concerned with coming off as narratively sophisticated. Partial to its message or not, “Lone Survivor” is a hell of a production.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Brutal, effectively paced and engaging battle scenes. Compelling source material and a surprisingly moving finale.
THE BAD – A shoddy lead performance, shallow characterization, and simplistic story-telling cheapens the otherwise highly impressive technical aspects of the film.