Well-meaning and overflowing with good intentions, Lone Survivor is an awkward tribute to the members of the Armed Services that’s more high quality reenactment than engaging look at soldiers in a war zone.
The film is based on Operation Red Wings the June 28, 2005 mission where four SEAL Team 10 members were sent to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. Shah’s (Yousuf Azami) somewhat jingoistic introductory scene features him leading a mob of his followers to a villager’s home and publicly beheading him. It’s intended to be shocking, but feels like an overly simplistic reason for why Shah needs to be taken down.
Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg, 2 Guns), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, John Carter), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster, Rampart) are selected to bring him in, but the mission goes screwy quickly leaving them stranded on a mountain hopelessly unarmed.
As he’s shown in his other military theme films, The Kingdom, and the far less serious Battleship, few parts of the film-making process elicit a heartier ‘OohRah!’ for Director/Writer Peter Berg than showing Armed Forces in action. The film’s opening scene features an extended montage of the grueling training SEALs undergo to reinforce the notion that being a SEAL is not for the faint of heart.
Berg, the son of an ex-Marine, has a commendable respect for soldiers — the film is spit-shined with authenticity from the lingo, the way the actors hold their weapons and having real soldiers as extras — but he’s yet to make a military film that goes beyond technical expertise to connect with viewers on an emotional level.
That’s mostly due to a lack of worthwhile character development and clunky, cliché dialogue. Making the soldiers more than one-dimensional gun-carriers was the most crucial element of the film and that key objective is abandoned to get to the action.
It’s especially disappointing as the cast shines in the small moments they have to establish their characters.
Wahlberg excels as a regular guy in the ensemble instead of being showcased as the big star, Kitsch gets a much-needed recovery role after a disastrous 2012 and delivers with a solid take on a man simply trying to do his duty, Hirsch offers a previously unrealized stern performance while Foster is razor-sharp as the intense squad member.
But it’s for naught as Berg shifts his attention to the shootouts. His weaknesses as a screenwriter aside, Berg strips the combat of any glamorized Hollywood portrayal and puts the viewer right in the middle of the battlefield with whizzing bullets, debris sprays and bullet-ridden and battered skin. The violence, while at times hard to watch, comes across as more authentic than gratuitous. Berg occasionally slips into heroically staging the fight scenes complete with slow-mo and dramatic music, but he largely lets the action play out.
With his admiration for the military, there may not be another filmmaker in better position to create the next Saving Private Ryan, but Lone Survivor represents another passion project for Berg that fails to give audiences a reason to care as much as its director.
Rating: 4 out of 10
Photo Credit: Gregory E. Peters/Universal Studios