Action Based on a True Story

Battle Born Film Review: Lone Survivor

January 10, 2014Ben MK

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Brotherhood on the battlefield

By Ben Mk

Based on the book, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, and following in the footsteps of 2012's Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor is the latest film to explore the threats faced by those who defend our post-911 world from those who seek to harm its citizens. Given its title, you can more or less surmise how the film's ending will turn out — whether or not you're familiar with the true events on which it's based — which is why it's doubly important to abandon any preconceived notions going in. Because for a film such as this, it's all about the journey; and in the case of Lone Survivor, it's not just a heroes' journey — it's a journey to Hell and back.

Although Battleship isn't the ideal film from Peter Berg's directorial repertoire to invoke, it does suggest a trend that has led the director to Lone Survivor. In that film, Berg worked with many real life military personnel (both on and off-camera); and in Lone Survivor, he continues that working relationship to bring to the screen a more grounded tale of heroism — an account of "Operation Red Wings", the US joint military mission that took place in mid-2005. For this, his second foray into the War on Terror since 2007's The Kingdom, Berg re-teams with his Battleship and Friday Night Lights star, Taylor Kitsch, as well as Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Eric Bana. Kitsch, Wahlberg, Foster and Hirsch (sporting beards that almost make them indistinguishable from one another) portray the four-man elite Navy SEAL team (in reality, Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell, Petty Officer Second Class Matthew Axelson and Petty Officer Second Class Danny Dietz, respectively) sent into a remote region of Afghanistan to eliminate a Tier 1 terrorist threat. Early into their mission, they find themselves fending off insurgents and forced to fight for their lives after encountering — and releasing, according to the Rules of Engagement — a group of unarmed villagers (who also happen to be enemy sympathizers).

The film's opening sequence, a montage of US Navy training footage, is designed to illustrate the extreme mental and physical limits to which these men and women are pushed. But it all pales in comparison to the level of punishment that the SEAL team will have to face later in the film. In many regards, we as moviegoers have been desensitized to the agony of war, but Lone Survivor may give you cause to reconsider that stance. Its unrelenting depiction of the brutality of battle — though neither gratuitous nor overly gory — places viewers at the forefront, to fully experience the aural and visual impact of every gunshot, body blow and explosion. And once the onslaught begins, it rarely lets up.

The film draws from Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down and Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, functioning not only as a document of a tactical military operation gone awry, but also as an inspirational tale of brotherhood and survival. As is to be expected, the requisite amount of gung-ho patriotism is on display here, but it's applied with discretion — not slathered on — to ensure that it doesn't overshadow the humanity of the story, which is paramount. Events don't just unfold as a series of calculated military moves, although there's enough strategizing to satisfy die-hard war buffs. The performances of the actors communicate the emotional toll of every decision, and we feel the impact of every life lost. The film also reminds audiences that war isn't black and white, but shades of grey, and that there is always the human element that can shift the tides of a conflict.

The Bottom Line

Taken at face value, Lone Survivor is one of the more satisfying action spectacles to explore the theater of war in recent years; but layered between the violence and the destruction is a lesson in humanity — and an incredible and inspirational true story. It's precisely that human element that allows Lone Survivor to transcend the boundaries of the genre. It's more than a war film; it's a film about camaraderie — about finding the best in oneself and in others, and finding the strength to endure the harshest of situations. [★★★★]

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