Saturday, January 11, 2014

NOW SHOWING: Lone Survivor (2014)

                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-


  1. Thanks, I wondered whether it would be good or not. Making movies so soon after the event is pretty tricky, but it sounds like they pulled it off.

    1. the war movie buffJanuary 13, 2014 at 8:21 PM

      I think you will like it. It's the kind of movie that is aimed at war movie lovers, action fans, and teenage boys. Other demographic groups will not "get" it.

  2. Indians don't have girlfriends, children, parents or even buddies. They don't speak English and it is doubtful that they speak any articulate language at all, except for war cries and hate speech. Since their bodies do not really exist, it doesn't matter if they are wounded or dead, as long as they are incapacitated. In combat, their animal fury and large numbers make up for their extremely poor strategy and technology.

    Cowboys are their exact opposites. Of course, there are sometimes White-friendly Indian tribes (why can't we just get aloooong?) but it doesn't matter. Nor does it matter who wins the battle, since in the end it's the difference that counts. Cowboys, Indians. Yeah. To paraphrase the great Pierre Desproges, "the enemy is so stupid he is convinced we are the enemy, whereas as everybody knows, he is."

    PS: even if you never liked 30s-40s Hollywood racist Westerns, ever if you're somehow puzzled as why anybody would seriously want to re-make one today, you should at least watch Lone Survivor for its hilarious 'Who Wants To Be a Millionaire' scene (when the Seals decide whether they are going to killl the goat shepherds or not). It is complete up to the sound jingles and 'call a friend' (at HQ).

    1. Your a bit over my head on this. I get your point that the movie is basically an Old School Western in several aspects, but that can be carried too far. Don't forget it is based on a true story and follows it acceptably close. As far as the enemy being the enemy, you don't have to reference Westerns for that. That is extremely standard for war movies. See "Zulu", for instance.

      The "hilarious" goat herder scene at least sets up a moral dilemma, which is something I like to see in a war movie. Since it plays out like it did in reality (although there is some question whether there actually was a debate), I can live with it. I wonder if you think they made the right decision, regardless of how the movie handled it. The scene is also not unique as it is very reminiscent of "Saving Private Ryan" (where it was done more poorly, in my opinion).

      By the way, there is a substantial portion of the audience that has never seen the type of Westerns you reference.

  3. Indeed that kind of caricature didn't stop with the Fifties, yet it became less common (btw Zulu is a colonial movie - and so are a lot of Westerns). Do soldiers (oops, seamen?) have to de-humanize their opponents? Sure. But not to the point of being entirely blind to - at least - their fighting skills or tactics, which is the unfortunate impression I gathered from the movie.

    The dilemma scene is really scripted and rendered like a TV game, and there are many other moments inspired by reality shows. I can stand BHD (which in comparison seems almost 'liberal' in the enemy department) because Scott has his own esthetics. Berg only borrows from extremely dubious sources.

    PS: I guess the seals should have silenced, or even killed, the herders. And the 'friendly villager' should not have intervened, for he certainly brought destruction upon his whole village.

  4. I agree with your P.S. I still do no understand why tying them up was not the obvious option. I also agree that the friendly villager made a poor choice, but then I do not know how strongly they hold their concept of hospitality and they may have had a major grudge against the Taliban. Plus, they may have envisioned the rain of hell from above if they had turned over an American to have his head cut off.

  5. You wrote such a terrific and appealing review before you sunk it with your last sentence. Duh.
    Alhough I'm a white female European I'm still looking forwad to it. I've already heard it's pretty close to Black Hawk Down as "someone" has already watched it behind my back last week.

    1. I have found (and partly through you) that many people outside America do not want to see movies about post Cold War American heroics. I know you are a big fan of BHD, but I view that as an exception. Remember "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Act of Valor".

    2. Conflicts involving the U.S. in the last 25 years have all been either completely uneven in strength (Yugoslav wars, First Gulf War, invasion of Afghanistan & Iraq, Libya) or straight asymetrical (Somalia, occupation of Afghanistan & Iraq). Hardly the background for large collective heroics, so what's left is the individual/small group heroics in an asymetrical situation.

      My guess would be that the military culture that developed in the U.S. throughout the 2000s is quite unique. Most, if not all, U.S. 'civilian' TV series post-2001 feature at some point active servicemen and/or their families, be it only for a couple episodes. As they seem to have become a very important part of everyday American life, representing those servicemen in combat carries strong emotional weight - something audiences in Foreign markets might find much more difficult to relate to.

      They're then left with a grid dominated by political value (and these conflicts were quite controversial abroad, even among allied countries), entertainment value (with a fierce pyrotechnic competiton from non-military, or fictional-conflict based, action movies) or esthetic value judgements...

    3. My point is that some non-Americans (and I am not talking about you and Caroline) tend to judge American war movies not based on the accuracy and entertainment of the film, but on a biase against post-Cold War military actions. I did not support all of those actions and will quickly grant that American hubris deserves criticism. American filmmakers have actually been more harsh than jingoistic overall. Hollywood has seemed to be cautious in choosing small unit actions as depicted in "Lone Survivor" and "Act of Valor" where grand strategy and strategy do not play a major role. Basically, hate the war, but love the warrior.

    4. Sure. However I think the political assessment comes stronger as the emotional link is weak in the first place. Actually the name Peter Berg rang a bell after I had written my first comment: I had forgotten he was behind the Friday Night Lights series. After re-watching the first season I withdraw my saying he "borrows from dubious sources", for in fact I found the 'reality TV' esthetics did work very well in the series. But in the case of Lone Survivor, they don't work for me because... I can hardly relate to the guys.

      Also, asymetrical warfare means there's no suspense at all about whose firepower, training and technology are the strongest overall. It's a big problem for the heroic narrative: for the fight to be good the stakes have to be high, meaning the enemy has to be strong in other departments. In Lone Survivor, the enemy alas doesn't display any particular skills. This is a big mistake, one that films like 317th Platoon or Battle of Algiers didn't do - two films which for me fall in the 'hate the war, love the warriors' category.

    5. You seem to forget that it is a true story. Granted that the odds may not have been as high as Luttrell writes about, but they still were substantially outnumbered. How many war movies involve the "good guys" outnumbering the "villains"? Thus, the "good guys" have to have the advantages other than numbers. This is pretty common and frankly, pretty entertaining.

      I have not been able to see 317th Platoon yet, but your use of Battle of Algiers as a "hate the war, love the warriors" is puzzling. Maybe if I was Algerian. I don't see the parallel to Lone Survivor either. To me the closest equivalent is Bravo Two Zero.

    6. We can safely assume that, once he was informed U.S. personel had been spotted, the Taliban commander had to make a cost/opportunity decision. Just how many men did he anticipate to lose? What would be his strength after that? Should he succeed, how did he plan to escape U.S. retaliation? etc. Problem is, the movie only makes him look irrational, full of rage and blood-thirsty.

      Though he doesn't seem to be a rookie, I don't deny this could possibly have been the case... Yet often in such cases movies resort to at least one confirmation scene: for instance, some men doubting their commander's decision, or even his soundness. Nothing of the sort here, hence we also have to assume that all Taliban fighters are irrational, full of rage and blood-thirsty, in a nutshell pretty dumb.

      Whatever their numbers, dumb warriors don't make good movie foes.

    7. I believe I read that the target was actually a Taliban wannabe which may have effected his desire to wipe out an American unit to gain cred. Regardless (and this may be prejudice on my part), I do not imagine him doing a cost/opportunity analysis before deciding to attack. He had to know they were after him. It seems a no brainer that he would send his men to eliminate the threat. Once that obvious decision was made I do not know what tactic could be expected other than to track down the Americans and kill them. The terrain did not lend itself to command and control and complicated troop movements. With that said, we are talking about highly trained SEALs versus the opposite. It was quantity versus quality and as almost always in warfare - quality caused a lot of casualties, but lost in the end. This is not Hollywood, this is reality.

      I disagree with your last statement. They should not make good foes, but they do. Black Hawk Down, Zulu, The Alamo, for examples.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.