‘Lone Survivor,’ or a Bright Sunny Day in Hell

The opening credits of director Peter Berg’s latest film Lone Survivor are an eccentrically-edited extended montage of still images and video, all building towards a crucial point: Navy boot-camp is Hell. It trains you to be pushed through the fires of Hell by creating that Hell around you.

The film seems to posit that this does two things: It prepares you for any situation you are put in, and it creates an unbreakable bond between you and your fellow soldiers. You become, in effect, brothers.

The word “brothers” is thrown around a lot in Lone Survivor. The whole film—telling the story of the doomed Operation Red Wings—places all its chips on this idea of brotherhood. In 2005, four Navy SEALs— Marcus Luttrell, Michael Murphy, Matthew Axelson, and Danny Dietz— were dropped into the mountains of the Kunar Province of Afghanistan, tasked with orders to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd at all costs. A poignant moral quandary left them in a firefight for their lives, a firefight from which only Luttrell survived. Luttrell went on to pen the book Lone Survivor, and the film version has been in development ever since. It’s no surprise why: Luttrell’s tale of bravery and camaraderie is powerful and inherently cinematic. And it’s all true.

Berg’s film, however, is conflicted. It retains all of the viscera and courage of the real-life story, but can’t seem to deliver on the emotional heft. Berg, who wrote and directed this film based off of Luttrell’s book, leads an eccentric cast (Mark Wahlberg as Lutrell, Taylor Kitsch as Murphy, Ben Foster as Axelson, Emile Hirsch as Dietz—plus, Eric Bana and Turtle from Entourage appear in supporting roles for some reason) that simply can’t make the audience believe in the film’s central theme of brotherhood.

The film takes incredibly long to get going, and even then the character work in the first act is sketchy to say the least. All of the characters are outlines of their more complex real-life selves, all of their goals and conflicts baseline and uninteresting. By the time the main four are dropped into Afghanistan, I didn’t feel like I knew any of them, and therefore had a tough time becoming invested. Which wouldn’t have been a problem if I had bought them as a team, but unfortunately that didn’t even quite work for me. The reason is simple: the central quartet of the film has very little, if any, chemistry with one another. Their acting styles don’t mesh, and they all seem to be acting in totally different movies. As they are all acting on such different wavelengths, there’s no sense of history between them, no sense of understanding one another, no sense of camaraderie, and, most crucially, no sense of brotherhood. Individually, the actors elevate their minimal character work with varying degrees of success, but together, I never felt the weight of their relationship as a team. And no matter how many times the phrase “we are brothers” was said aloud, I could never feel its weight.

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However, the interesting thing about Lone Survivor is that this doesn’t entirely sink it. The final act of the movie becomes the Mark Wahlberg vehicle that the poster and trailer would have you believe, and, unsurprisingly for me, without the “brotherhood” sledgehammer being wielded left and right, this section is the best part of the movie— a powerful one-man survival tale that could have been worthy of Gravity or All is Lost if it were its own movie, allowing Wahlberg to deliver some of his best work in years. He and Foster are the MVPs; they do the best job of elevating their paper-thin characterizations to exciting and heartbreaking extremes. Foster especially is fantastic. He is sadly underutilized, but he nails his big moments, and his final scene is the haunting and emotional high point of the movie.

The best aspect of Lone Survivor, however, is Berg’s work behind the camera. While he could’ve done more stylistically to represent the darkness of the situation (the natural lighting during the daytime does occasionally make the footage look somewhat cheap), he should be commended for being able to so viscerally portray the Hell these men fall under. About an hour of the movie is one long sustained firefight, and Berg makes clever and inventive choices to keep the tension up for that entire time. These men have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, but they do have each other, and Berg does a good job raising the question his writing never did—could that be enough?

Unfortunately, by film’s end, I had a hard time figuring out what purpose it served. There is no doubt that the real-life events that inspired this film are powerful and emotional, but Lone Survivor the movie never quite captures that. And a separation between the two must exist. Berg’s film brings nothing new to the table and is shaky on what it does bring. While it is an interesting exercise in sustained tension with a few nice performances, as well as a suitable memorial to the victims of Operation Red Wings, Lone Survivor focuses its themes in all the wrong places and (especially in a post-Captain Phillips world) never feels like a thorough enough recounting of the real-life events (especially when you consider the way the Taliban is portrayed in this movie compared to, say, the Somali pirates in Captain Phillips). It was clearly a passion project for everyone involved and it’s bound to connect with some audiences, but it left me feeling less than I— and the film— had hoped for.

It’s not a misfire, but it does miss the mark.

GRADE: C

WHAT TO WATCH NEXT: Peter Berg also directed Battleship. He could make that movie a million times over and I will always forgive him, because he directed the original Friday Night Lights and created the TV show that spawned from it. The entirety of Friday Night Lights is on Netflix. Allow me to be the thousandth person to tell you to go watch it. It is that good.

Check out the trailer for Lone Survivor here.  Thanks to Universal Studios and FLiCKS for the Advanced Screening.  Ride Along will be screened tomorrow at Cubberley.  Find more info here.

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