The short review: Balancing the chest-thumping and jingoism inherent to many military films with raw emotion and an emphasis on the relationships between men in an extraordinary situation, Lone Survivor is a triumph.
The long review: Beautiful vistas? Check. Taylor Kitsch? Check. Sweeping soundtrack from post-rock gods Explosions in the Sky? Check. Yep, this is definitely a Peter Berg film, and I mean that in the best way possible. Walking a delicate tightrope between documentarian and dramatist, Peter Berg takes a harrowing real life tale of survival and elevates it to become an electrifying, profoundly compelling cinematic experience without falling into the pitfalls of getting overly schmaltzy or jingoistic. It may seem a bit heavy-handed at times, but ultimately Lone Survivor is a success thanks to a dynamite cast, Berg’s direction, and the film’s uniquely haunting charms.
Based on the memoir of the same name by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor follows the events of “Operation Red Wings,” a reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan’s Kunar province intended to locate a Taliban warlord. The mission was compromised when Luttrell and his three squadmates were discovered by local goatherders, leading to a pitched battle on a rocky mountainside that claimed the lives of Luttrell’s squadmates and others in the rescue effort that followed. It was the single largest loss of life of Navy Special Warfare forces since World War II, a tragedy by all accounts underlined by a story of miraculous, unrelenting survival.
Yet, rather than being a film about the conflict itself, Lone Survivor is an exploration of the brotherhood forged in war and the cruel effects it can wreak on soldiers and citizens on both sides of the fray. Of particular note, the camaraderie between the four leads of Lone Survivor is papable. Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, and Emile Hirsch gave it their all and their commitment has paid off in spades, creating an immersive sense of the brotherhood, moral crisis and sacrifice shared between these men. Likewise, Berg’s portrayal of the Taliban and Afghani villages is even-handed, a laudable feat considering how easy it would have been to make them a monolithic evil.
The centerpiece of the film is a nearly 30-minute firefight, yet much of it is spent furthering character development and cementing the protagonists’ relationships. Honoring the memory of these fallen men while crafting an entertaining, big budget picture is a seemingly Herculean task for Berg, but he manages to toe the line quite well, thanks in part to copious research and constant advice from men like Luttrell, who served as a consultant on the film. Clearly, these are men who Berg idolizes and places upon a pedestal, and that may turn certain viewers off, but if you’re willing to look past your qualms and accept the film for what it is, then it is quite a powerful piece of cinema.
In short, Lone Survivor is a harrowing, breathtaking experience that will send your heart rate soaring higher than a chain smoker in spin class. It’s a powerful film, for sure, and one of the starkest portrayals of the brotherhood forged in the heat of battle you’ll see up on the big screen. Its greatest battle is one with itself between honoring the memories of the fallen and creating a big budget blockbuster, but thanks to Berg’s leadership and heartfelt performances, it is one where audiences emerge the victor.
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