Saturday 14 October 2017

Movie Review: Lone Survivor (2013)

A war endurance story, Lone Survivor is a harrowing recreation of a mission-gone-wrong in the mountains of Afghanistan.

The setting is June, 2005, in Afghanistan. Four Navy SEALs are deployed on a remote mountaintop near an isolated village on a reconnaissance mission to identify and track a Taliban leader. The team consists of sniper Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Lieutenant Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Communications Specialist Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and sniper Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster). Lieutenant Commander Erik S. Kristensen (Eric Bana) tracks their progress from a forward operations base, but communications are patchy due to the difficult terrain.

The mission is compromised when three local goat herders stumble onto the SEAL's observation point. Murphy and his men decide to retreat from the area, but local anti-American militias are alerted to their presence and the four men are caught in a vicious firefight, vastly outnumbered and cut off from any support.

Directed by Peter Berg and based on the book of the same name by Luttrell, Lone Survivor stays close to the facts and pays respectful attention to the events of the ill-fated Operation Red Wings. Similar in tone to Black Hawk Down, Lone Survivor looks for the acts of valour and unshakeable brotherhood emerging in the midst of a ruinous military misadventure.

Berg steers clear of any politicizing or examination of why the US troops are in Afghanistan in the first place. This is a story zoomed-in on four highly-trained warriors attempting to execute a mission, and forced to innovate their way out of trouble while under fire. The ordeal is agonizing, the casualties are high, and Berg's cameras do not flinch in the face of bullet strikes, physical and mental suffering, and death.

Berg's script relied on actual mission reports and autopsies to capture the details of individual wounds, and Lone Survivor is a testimony to the eternal horrors of war, up-close and personal. More than once the SEALs tumbled down steep rocky embankments to try and escape their pursuers, and the images of human bodies hurtling out of control and bouncing repeatedly off hard objects are painful to watch.

Once the combat starts at around the 45 minute mark, Lone Survivor unleashes and sustains unrelenting intensity, the bonding between the men rising as their casualties mount and the inevitable arrives. Berg achieves a memorable combat and heroism climax when Murphy, under intense fire, insists on reaching a rocky but exposed high point to try and establish communications and call for help.

Given the film's focus on just the four men, Lone Survivor could have invested more time in their backstories. Berg provides a few perfunctory and abstract references to wives and girlfriends, and leaves it at that. The film also unfortunately falls into the tired Hollywood trap of over-juicing the final drama, placing Luttrell in perils that he never actually faced, when his actual ordeal should have been sufficient.

But these are relatively minor quibbles. Lone Survivor is a superior and forceful war film, capturing soldiers at their best under the worst possible conditions.

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