Lone Survivor review: never get involved in a land war in Asia

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Lone Survivor green light Mark Wahlberg

Acknowledges the powerful fraternity of soldiers without being jingoistic, and depicts the intensity and adrenaline of a battlefield without being pornographic.
I’m “biast” (pro): have a sneaking affection for Mark Wahlberg

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The spoiler is in the title: Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell was the only one to walk away — well, to get medevac’ed away — from a doomed 2005 mission in the mountains of Afghanistan to capture or kill Ahmad Shahd, a Taliban leader who’d targeted U.S. Marines and was an all-around villain. Now, writer-director Peter Berg, in a gripping bounceback from his deeply terrible Battleship, has adapted Luttrell’s story into one of the more realistic military movies ever (at least as far as someone who’s never been in the military can determine), one that acknowledges the powerful fraternity of soldiers without being jingoistic about their work, and one that depicts the intensity and adrenaline of a battlefield without being pornographic about it. It’s even got something to say about the ironies of modern asymmetrical warfare and the senselessness of Western military presence in the region.

The giveaway of the title turns some clichés of the war flick immediately into resigned tragedy. The SEAL who has a sweet Skype chat with his wife before heading out on the mission. Another who discusses with a brother-in-arms appropriate wedding gifts for his fiancée. We already know these guys are doomed. And yet, just as, perhaps, these soldiers don’t linger on the possibility of their own demise as they troop into the rugged hills to seek out their target, we too forget the inevitable and are caught up in the immediate moment as the mission goes wrong almost instantly. The mission isn’t “cursed,” Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg: 2 Guns, Pain and Gain) corrects one of his fellows; “it’s just Afghanistan.” Hanging over everything that happens here is the unspoken suggestion that they shouldn’t even be here at all, and they’re certainly not prepared for it. As fighting machines, sure: they’ve been through brutal, almost abusive training, as we see in the montage of, presumably, real SEALs being toughened up that opens the film. But not one in this band of four — led by Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch: John Carter, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and also including Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch: Taking Woodstock, Milk) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster: Contraband, 360) — speaks a word of the language of the hill tribes they’re wandering amongst. Which presents an enormous problem when an old man and a little boy shepherding goats stumble upon their hiding place above the village housing their objective below.

Berg does not shy from the terrible realities of the SEALs’ situation, and listening to American soldiers arguing over whether they should shoot dead unarmed civilians in order to protect their mission is horrific. (They fear their presence would be revealed to Shahd if they let the goatherds go, and they cannot even talk to their captives to determine whose side they might be on; the film makes it plain that plenty Afghans hate the Taliban.) But the centerpiece of the film is an extended firefight that is not in the least bit Hollywoodized action, in which the four SEALs sustain awful — and awfully realistic — injuries, and are utterly beat up and shot up, and make decisions aimed at their survival that indicate that that abusive-seeming training was indeed necessary, and far from too extreme.

From the perspective of mere movie entertainment, the non-CGI’ed stuntwork and you-are-there action is riveting, and not like anything you’ve seen on film before. From the perspective of real-world military work, dammit, we need to be finding better ways of resolving conflicts than this. We must be insane to let anyone, on either side of this deplorable state of affairs, go through what we witness here.

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

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Mark Faamaoni
Mark Faamaoni
Tue, Jan 07, 2014 5:21am

I just read this on the wiki page for the movie:

“Berg, however, could not get support for the film from Universal without agreeing to direct Battleship (2012) first.”

Which, of course, when you think about it, makes perfect sense, in a sad kind of way. You have to make the rubbish film to finance the movie you really want to make.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Mark Faamaoni
Tue, Jan 07, 2014 9:26am

That *is* ridiculous. But no movie *has* to suck. It might not be Berg’s fault that *Battleship* is awful, but it’s someone’s fault, and it didn’t have to be that way.

reply to  Mark Faamaoni
Tue, Jan 07, 2014 10:04am

I’ve often had the feeling that Hollywood assigns people complete trash as part of “paying their dues” — either because they made a flop before, or because they’re trying to build up credit for something non-blatantly-commercial later.

This looks like, well, not an easy film, but one worth watching.