"If this is what happens when God's looking out for us, I'd hate to see him pissed."
First hand survival accounts are always a dubious proposition on film. They risk an awful lot of scrutiny in the telling because film has a language all its own that differs from real life, and the more far fetched a story is, the harsher the light can be that shines on them. At the same time, things can always be chalked up to the notion that something must be true because it's so unbelievable, which somewhat absolves filmmakers of any dramatic license they may take with the source material.
This slippery slope will be ever present in your mind while watching the new film Lone Survivor, based on a failed Navy Seal mission in Afghanistan in 2005. While it is no doubt based firmly in the reality of the sole survivor of this ordeal, it also suffers from the same thing last year's Best Picture winner Argo suffered from which is an all too perfect climax that seems to have been punched up to make it more cinematic and suspenseful. But I'm getting ahead of myself, read on for the full story...
Opening with a Navy Seal training highlight reel, Lone Survivor lets you know immediately what it is and where it's headed. The film then jumps to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan where a group of Seals is told that their latest mission, Operation Red Wing has been given the green light. Heading up the four man mission is Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), who will lead Gunner's Mate Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Sonar Technician Matthew "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster), and Hospital Corpsman Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlbeg) into the mountains of Afghanistan to take out a Taliban leader (Yousuf Azami) who has been killing soldiers and civilians in the region.
Almost immediately after arriving, the four get a sight on their target, but lose radio contact with the base. Not long after, their location is discovered by an elderly goatherd and two teenage boys. The soldiers detain them, realizing that they have three options. They can release them, but they will surely give up their location. They can leave them tied up, but that will spell their demise either from the weather or from wild animals. Or they can terminate them. After some deliberation they release the three and head further up the mountain to make radio contact and request a rescue, but it isn't long before they're engaged by two hundred Taliban soldiers.
The most undeniable thing that one can say about this film is that screenwriter and director Peter Berg has a lot of love and passion for the source material. The film's earnestness radiates out of every frame of the film, showing that it's the work of someone who loves and cares for the story they're telling. This does not necessarily make it a good film, it just makes it a very hard film to hate because it does feel so personal and strives to do right by these men who sacrificed their lives for our country. Though the first twenty minutes of the film led me to believe that it was going to be yet another exercise in jingoism, it thankfully skirted that once the story proper kicked into gear. Don't get me wrong, it is AMPED with patriotism, but it never ventures into jingoistic territory, and thank goodness for that.
Since the very title of the film is a spoiler, it should come as no surprise that Luttrell is the only one who survives the compromised operation. What I found interesting is what they chose to keep in the film and what was deleted from the story, and the whys surrounding that which I'm left with. In Luttrell's book, he is found alive by Taliban soldiers who relocate him to a cave where he's held hostage for ten days before being rescued by an anti-Taliban Afghani farmer. This entire portion of the story was jettisoned, and I truly wonder why. Did Berg deem it too far fetched to work within the confines of the film, because if that's the case, he certainly had no problem leaving in a number of far fetched third act developments.
Please understand that my criticisms and questions are in no way meant to question the facts of the story, which are undeniably harrowing, it's just strange for Berg to pick and choose which parts of the story stayed in and which were thrown out. The film's attention to detail and verisimilitude is admirable, and I appreciated the fact that they wasted no time explaining various military terms or behaviors and just allowed the story to unfold as naturally as it must have in real life. Like I said, it's virtually impossible to hate this film.
The performances were all solid and all four lead actors brought their A game to the proceedings. Hirsch has always been a dynamic screen presence, and his work here is about as good as you'd expect from someone as talented as he is. Foster and Kitsch are two actors I normally don't care much for, but they both surprised me with their work here which was nuanced and strong. Wahlberg surprisingly comes off the least interesting of the four which really threw me for a loop. He's honestly not given much to do in the early goings, coming off as somewhat of a dope which was really shocking considering he was portraying the author of the book, but he rebounded nicely in the last half hour or so. It was also nice to see the real Marcus Luttrell as a Seal on the base as well.
The film's climax did reek a bit of American pride, particularly considering that the American military, as an entity, is not really the hero of the story, but more the muscle that rolls in to save the day. I was grateful that the actions of the civilians that saved Luttrell were given their due as they truly sacrificed everything to save this man, and a pre-credits scrawl explains why. I really could have done without the overly earnest Peter Gabriel cover of David Bowie & Brian Eno's "Heroes" that plays over photos of the real men involved because it added an unnecessary layer of schmaltz to an otherwise powerful montage of photos, but it will no doubt reduce many a hardened military vet in the audience to tears.
Lone Survivor is the kind of film that works really well because it's a good story that's told well, but it's brutality makes me content to never watch it again. I'm not sure why I need to constantly point out that it's not a bad film, but it truly is not, it's just the sort of thing that I'm fine with only seeing once. I can see this being a landmark film for many people, and as I mentioned already, military personnel in particular will admire it more than the average person because of the attention to detail that Berg and company put into it. But much like Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, it just doesn't appeal to my sensibilities, so it's one and done for me.
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]