Well, it was one of those rare days when I got to go see a war movie in a theater. That happened only twice last year – “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Phantom”. Hopefully 2014 will be a banner year for war flicks. It is off to a grand start with “Lone Survivor” which is based on the best-seller by Mark Luttrell (and ghost-writer Patrick Robinson) and written and directed by Peter Berg (trying to get into Heaven after “Battleship”). Luttrell was the only survivor of a four man SEAL recon unit that was part of Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan in 2007. The ill-fated mission was to capture or kill a Taliban leader.
The film starts strong with archival SEAL training footage running over the credits which indicates strong Pentagon support for the production. This also dispenses with the normal training sequence common in movies like this. This results in little character development, but the film is more about a quartet of brothers than about four individuals anyway. As though the title is not enough of a giveaway, our first shot is of Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) being medevaced in terrible condition. His narration sets the tone. “There’s a storm inside us… an unrelenting desire to push yourself… into those cold dark corners where the bad things live….”
Operation Red Wings is outlined efficiently using maps, slides, and even toy helicopters. The target is a Taliban bigwig who is established as kill-worthy through a scene where he ruthlessly beheads a villager (and not with one clean cut). The insertion is very “Black Hawk Down”ish. (In fact BHD is this movie’s closest equivalent). The environment is the opposite of Mogadishu, however. Very mountainous and scenic - if it weren’t for the creepy foreboding. SNAFU rears its ugly head with the lack of communications with their base. Soon after, they are discovered by three goat-herders and its dilemma time. The debate comes down to kill them so they can continue the mission to eliminate a high-value target or let them go because it would be a war crime that could put them on CNN and in Leavenworth (Luttrell’s position). Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) makes the call. They let them go and head for an extraction point. You don’t need to know the title of the film to know that the decision will have fatal consequences.
It does not take long for the movie to become a “last stand” scenario. A large force of Afghans hunt the four in the hillside forest. Being true SEALs, our boys take the fight to the enemy and give much more than they take, but they still end up taking a lot. All four suffer numerous wounds. (Luttrell deals with them by packing them with dirt because that’s what real men do!) The violence and action is amazing. It is one of the best combat sequences ever filmed. There are a couple of breathers fitted in for them men to talk like American warriors and for the audience to unclutch their arm rests. At one point, they are blown off a cliff by an RPG and proceed to roll down the hillside in a shot that makes you respect stuntmen immensely. One good roll deserves another as they actually voluntarily repeat the bone crushing feat soon after. In the only LOL moment in an otherwise grim film, Luttrell ends his second trip face to face with a rattlesnake! One bad thing about escaping by rolling down a cliff is it gives the enemy the high ground. Murphy sacrifices his life for the others (a basic theme of the film) and is rewarded with one of the best war movie deaths.
The cavalry arrives in the form of two MH-47 helicopters carrying a large force of their SEAL brethren. The result is shocking. Only Mark and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) remain and they are sieves. Axe has a head wound that has him pissed. His subsequent death tops Murphy’s. This movie does death scenes well. Mark hides and when he wakes, the battle is over. He is rescued by an Afghan villager (wearing white) and taken to his home in a village because you can say what you will about their crap culture, they are very hospitable. When the Taliban arrive to take Luttrell, its shootout at the O.K. Corral time with a touch of the cavalry arriving. Macho guy warning: the movie closes with pictures of all the heroic dead with Peter Gabriel singing “Heroes”, so have your hankie ready.
“Lone Survivor” accomplishes what it sets out to do. It is a tribute to the American participants. Obviously, the Navy liked what it saw in the screenplay as the movie had significant military support. Berg also had the complete support of the families of the four men. Mission accomplished with a flair for the entertainment potential of the story. The movie kicks ass for a significant length of its running time. It has more action than a vast majority of war films and is in BHD territory. The violence is graphic and adrenalin-fueled. However, the deaths of Murphy and Axelson dilute the Taliban bloodbath. You don’t wallow like in some movies. The movie is clearly pro-SEAL, but anti-war.
Berg deserves a lot of credit for climbing out of that “Battleship” hole. He worked hard to get everything right and the movie shows great craftsmanship. There is a variety of cinematography that keeps us cinephiles happy. Lots of hand-held, some POV, a little slo-mo, perhaps too many close-ups. You definitely think you are with those guys. Kudos to the music which is understated, but effective. There are long stretches with no music, which I like. The sound is also excellent. Mostly of the gunfire and explosions variety. I don’t usually mention make-up in my reviews of war movies, but Howard Berger and his crew used the autopsy records to get the details right for the wounds. The dialogue is appropriate for Navy Seals. There is not a lot of banter, but it’s not forced. The comradeship and brotherhood are apparent. The movie gets the military ethos right, but hammers it in a bit.
As far as accuracy, the movie reminds me of “We Were Soldiers” except this is based on a memoir so you could question the source material. I’m not going to go into the possible inaccuracies in the book right now. (Maybe in a Book/Movie post.) The fact is that Berg bought the rights to the book and had Luttrell as his technical adviser (he appears in the movie). Does anyone suggest he should have told Luttrell that he thought he was lying and change the screenplay in his face? One significant thing is that Berg reduced Luttrell’s disputed estimate of 80-200 enemy to a more realistic 50 or so. (Imagine that, a director reducing the odds!) The mission was as outlined. The communications problems and the goat herders’ incident happened. Based on my research, I can live with the debate as depicted. The ensuing fire-fight was as close as one man’s recollection put on film can be expected to be. The deaths of the three were vetted by the families. The helicopter disaster was accurate although Luttrell did not actually witness it.
The movie goes off the historical path after the fighting ends. Luttrell did not walk out, he crawled seven miles. Luttrell’s rescue by Mohammad Gulab and his insistence on protecting his “guest” as part of the Afghani trait of Pashtunwalli is close, but there was no more excitement after that. The ending battle was like the one in “We Were Soldiers”. Crowd-pleasing, but the type of thing that makes discerning viewers say “I bet that didn’t happen” and sure enough… The rescue was actually mundane and Luttrell was not at death’s door. He did not flat-line. Why does Hollywood always insist on putting a cherry on top? The sundae was plenty good already.
“Lone Survivor” is a very good movie. It has most of the attributes that I want in a war movie. It tells a story that deserved to be told and it does it in an entertaining way. It is reasonably accurate. The combat is realistic and there is plenty of it. The acting is stellar (especially Ben Foster), the cinematography is not pedestrian, the technical aspects are solid, and the plot is not an afterthought. It’s a must see for every male, American war movie lover.
Grade = A-