Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Eric Bana, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster
Rated: R, for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language
Runtime: 2 hours, 1 minute
Bottom line: Well-crafted war film
Action movies aren’t known for sparking debate, but "Lone Survivor" will likely incite disagreement among both veterans and civilians.
The film is based on Mark Luttrell’s firsthand account of the failed United States Navy SEALs mission Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan in which four members of SEAL Team 10 were tasked to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. It honors the soldiers who died in the mission but dances around political and strategic land mines.
The movie opens with documentary footage that provides a glimpse into the unbelievably difficult and dangerous tests a soldier must endure to become a navy SEAL. It is a process of elimination that foreshadows and parallels what will happen during Operation Red Wings.
This opening sequence, along with the involvement of multiple branches of the armed forces, lend the movie a rare authenticity. It feels like an inside job, even though it is directed by someone who never served (Peter Berg) and stars Hollywood actors.
The film is shot beautifully and Berg went to great lengths to play out the action as Luttrell, who was constantly on set, claims it did. The combat scenes are riveting and tense for the very reason that they are realistic.
Berg also does his best to reduce the film’s thematic scope. There is no overt political question or debate over the righteousness of our military action in Afghanistan. This is a survival story about four soldiers on a mission, and the explicit agenda is to honor the soldiers who died and explore the character of these men.
Lead actor Mark Wahlberg provides opening voice-over narration about SEAL team soldiers being the type of people who have a need, a fire to push themselves into the darkest possible places. It’s all about why these men would volunteer for the outrageously difficult training and such dangerous missions.
There is little here to cause us to question Berg’s and his cast’s sincerity; they earnestly want to pay tribute to the real soldiers involved in Operation Red Wings, and by extension, all soldiers. This is the movie’s best quality. Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster give a great ensemble performance that frequently nods to their real counterparts.
When introducing each of the characters, photos of the real soldiers and their loved ones are used rather than re-creations featuring the actors who play them. Luttrell makes a cameo and several real soldiers fill extra roles.
Berg also humanizes his characters. These men are action junkies who sign on knowing they will perform raids and kill even without being fired upon, but they are also young men at the age when most are getting married, raising children and building civilian careers. These soldiers sacrifice all of that.
Berg reminds us these are, when you get down to it, normal guys. They debate the colors one soldier’s wife has picked out for their house, the horse another’s fiance wants for a wedding present and, up until things begin to go sideways during the mission, the chatter is rather routine.
These mundane conversations flesh out the characters beyond types and build our allegiance to them. When these men die, it hurts. That’s a testament to the writing, filmmaking and acting.
On the other hand, Shah is introduced as a "tier one target," and we see him publicly behead a man, in a bloody, gruesome scene, for "helping the Americans." Shah is Taliban and unquestionably a very bad man.
Good and evil are easily defined and there is no room for political debate, right?
That’s where things get complicated, mostly because of the movie’s source material. Some have found factual inaccuracies in Luttrell’s book and questioned just how high value a target Shah actually was.
The movie eventually indulges in some recruiting video tactics, too. One scene shows the flag-draped caskets bearing the bodies of the real soldiers killed in Operation Red Wings. Music swells, and it’s the most propagandistic segment of the film.
On the other hand, Berg manages to show the real price of war, which is not insignificant given the many years when Americans were forbidden from seeing such images.
All these things can and will be debated, but few will argue whether this is a quality action movie. The combat is realistic and gripping. Even when the team is surrounded, gunfire is coming from all directions and everything devolves into chaos, the cinematography and editing are coherent and very well-executed.
"Lone Survivor" is a must-see for war movie and action fans, but be prepared for the conversation afterward.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gaines villetimes.com/getout.