Thursday, January 16, 2014

Lone Survivor (2013) – Review

Review: Lone Survivor is an intense war action/drama that succeeds as a rousing tale of survival against all odds. The film is about the 2005 Operation Red Wings. A four man SEAL team, including Marcus Luttrell, Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz, and Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson, is dropped behind enemy lines in Afghanistan to do recon on a top Taliban target. However, everything goes wrong when the four SEALs come across three goat herders and are face with the moral quandary of whether to let them go and risk likely discovery by a large Taliban force or kill them and keep their presence in the area unknown. The team decides to let the herders go. Now, they are confronted with impossible odds as a large army of Taliban fighters moves in on their position (plus, their communications are down and they are somewhat trapped on a mountainside).

Writer-director Peter Berg does almost everything right with his treatment of this true story. It is respectful to all parties involved (more or less – I mean, the Taliban is clearly the evil villain, but I think most would agree to that being a true statement in almost every case), but is triumphant as a heroic (patriotic) story (with a very surprising twist). The politics are difficult – should American troops even be in Afghanistan is a reasonable debate – however, Berg side steps politics for the most part. Instead, the film just tells the story of the men involved in the operation in a straightforward manner and what happened to them.

The characters too are not used as platforms for political statements one way or another. Berg takes almost a procedural approach to the material. The SEALs, like most in the armed forces, are fighting for the guy next to them. They just want to do their job well and come home to their families safe. But with Operation Red Wings, that was just not the case.

Berg is unflinching in his portrayal of the action, detailing it very specifically with each wound and casualty felt. The film is intense and gripping to say the least. The shooting-style that Berg employs also gives it a very realist look and feel. The audience feels like they are right there in it with the characters, which is very effective. It is hard to not feel something at the end of the film – a rallying call of sorts for support and appreciation for our armed forces and the men and women who serve and sacrifice for an idea (ideal). To see these men, who are introduced to the audience as likable, average American men (though, highly skilled in their field), essentially tore apart is heart wrenching.

And yet, the film is manipulative as well. Berg knows just how to win the audience over emotionally. The SEALs and those that aid them are clearly the heroes while the Taliban is clearly the villain. There is no grey area (which is maybe a missed opportunity to explore the other side’s motivations – be them whatever they may be). In this way, the film is a bit like a classic western with white hats and black hats or cowboys and Indians. One side is stoic and heroic, while the other side is vicious, despicable, and just plain evil. Real life is not often that way. But again, as a treatment of this story from the perspective of the SEALs, the story is told very effectively.

On one hand Lone Survivor is a brutal and harrowing war drama and on the other hand it is a heroic action survival narrative, and it works as both. If nothing else, it is clear that these men desperately fought tooth and nail for each other and that is inspiring and heart breaking (because these men were like brothers to each other) regardless of one’s politics.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Peter Berg is at his best when he tells stories that are action driven but with good, likable characters (like Lone Survivor). I think his best and most entertaining film is still The Kingdom, but Lone Survivor is a close second (I also like Friday Night Lights). Lone Survivor has a strong emotional impact that is sure to resonate with audiences (especially in America).

The film feels very authentic overall, and that is thanks to Tom Duffield’s production design steeped in realism and Tobias A. Schliessler’s naturalistic cinematography. The film almost feels like a documentary at times, especially with the great real footage used during the opening credits detailing the rigors of the SEALs’ training program. The score and music by Steve Jablonsky and Explosions in the Sky also play a big role in the emotional impact of the film, heightening the action and emotional beats.

For the most part the film is delivered as a story and action driven narrative, but sneakily Berg actually seems to make the action and story feel secondary to the characters, which is chiefly the reason why this film is so powerful. It is not so much that these characters are terrifically developed, more that they are just very relatable and likable. The film also benefits from strong performances across the cast, who deliver work that too feels very realistic (most of the extras were played by real life members of the U.S. armed forces). The audience cares about these characters, which makes all the difference in the world. Alexander Ludwig, Eric Bana, Ali Suliman, and Rohan Chand are all very good in small supporting roles. Ben Foster is a fantastic character actor. Here, he plays Axe with an edge. He is a soldier who cares deeply about his friends and is willing to cross moral lines to see their survival. The film presents its moral question, quickly goes over the options with some discussion to which is ‘right’, and then the SEALs decide and move forward without dwelling on their choice. They simply do what they think is ‘right’ at the time, in the moment. Emile Hirsch plays Danny, the team’s radio operator. He plays his character as a man in awe of his fellow soldiers, a man who very much wants to live up to their high standards and expectations. Taylor Kitsch plays Lieutenant Michael Murphy, the leader of the four-man team. Murphy received the Medal of Honor for his actions on the day, and Kitsch plays him with strength and courage under fire – a man that all the others like and respect. Mark Wahlberg plays Marcus Luttrell, the lone surviving member of the SEAL team. He captures the spirit of perseverance with his will to keep going. He also creates a strong emotional connection with the audience.

Summary & score: Lone Survivor is a very good war/action drama, telling an incredible story of survival and humanity in the direst of circumstances. 7/10

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