Adapted from the nonfiction book “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10,” by former United States Navy SEAL, Marcus Luttrell, Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor chronicles a tragic story of survival against terrorist forces in a mountainous region outside of Asadabad, Afghanistan. Tasked with reconnoissance in a joint military operation to take down Taliban leader Ahmad Shah and disrupt his growing militia, four Navy SEAL operatives – SO2 Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), LT Michael P. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), SO2 Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and SO2 Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) – set up surveillance between the Sawtalo Sar and Gatigal Sar mountain peaks.
However, when the mission is compromised, the SEALs are forced into a difficult decision about how to proceed, and it isn’t long before the Murphy and his men come under heavy fire, pursued relentlessly across the mountain region by a vast and well-armed Taliban force.
In an effort to bring Marcus Luttrell’s recount of events to the big screen, Berg went through the arduous process of re-creating every single bullet wound and mountainside fall as accurately as possible – delivering one of the most intense (and subsequently draining) military movies ever filmed. Lone Survivor holds very little back, relying on real-life warfront action that few moviegoers will have seen before, and revealing just how much damage the human body (and soul) can endure. Superb performances from the cast, paired with subtle (albeit limited) characterization of the actual SEALs, ensures that Lone Survivor isn’t just a violence-filled survival thriller, it’s a fitting honor to the men that lost their lives during Operation Red Wings (as well as the loved ones they left behind).
Anyone familiar with Luttrell’s book, the news story (which made national headlines), or the film’s trailer, will have a pretty clear idea of how the Lone Survivor account plays out; however, that doesn’t make the moment-to-moment action and events any less engaging. As mentioned, Berg succeeds at establishing the key players in Lone Survivor early on, with delicate and effective story arcs for each member of the team, along with an intimate look at Navy SEAL life, credo, and operations – without falling into the trap of heavy-handed military lingo and overly-macho stereotypes. Instead, Lone Survivor succeeds because its heroes are sensitive and loving men, dedicated husbands, boyfriends, and brothers who toil over paint colors for their wives – while serving as trained killers capable of enduring unbelievable physical and emotional torment. These are real people, who found themselves in a horribly real life-or-death battle.
Still, engaging story material only goes so far in a big-screen adaption, and, thankfully, the Lone Survivor cast is packed with solid talent in even the smallest roles – including Eric Bana as LCDR Erik S. Kristensen and Jerry Ferrara as SGT Hasslert – ensuring that the character drama is as equally evocative as the gun fights. The principle players each bring a different element (and backstory) to the screen with exceptional (and stirring) performances from Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch – each one successfully carrying their respective SEAL from carefree brothers, joking and teasing one another, to shattered and worn-down heroes in an impossible situation.
Foster deserves added praise for his portrayal of Axelson – with one moment that will likely haunt many viewers long after they’ve finished Lone Survivor. Wahlberg’s work as Luttrell is equally strong – especially when the character’s condition dramatically changes in the third act. No doubt, the actor has seen his fair share of cheesy (not to mention meme-able) roles, but Wahlberg continues to prove that given the right material and clear direction, he’s capable of providing genuinely affecting performances – and his work in Lone Survivor is, at times, among his best.
Nevertheless, Lone Survivor is not going to be for everyone, given that it is an unrelenting recount of Operation Red Wings, and is as such beholden to the real-life tragedy. Berg manages to wrangle the step-by-step progression into a functional narrative, even managing to include a few non-American heroes, but viewers who expect to learn more about the SEALs or the larger situation they were in will find that Lone Survivor is locked to a very tight perspective. It’s a claustrophobic experience that will force moviegoers to repeatedly confront the horrors of the battlefield, to the point of absolute exhaustion. Some will, no doubt, be overwhelmed by the amount of violence; for others, each bullet wound will be a harsh reminder of the kind of terrors service men and women face each day.
Either way, it’s hard to fault Berg for his approach: it may not be for everyone, but Lone Survivor is a moving (and disturbing) look at the events of Operation Red Wings – and a thoughtful glimpse at the men that gave their lives for it. It’s a challenging viewing experience, filled with heartbreaking scenes of tragedy, but strong performances and a sincere approach to the real-life situation (as well as some genuinely uplifting moments of humanity), make it a worthwhile one.
If nothing else, much like Luttrell’s eyewitness written account, Lone Survivor succeeds at paying honor to all the men and women who have died in military service (not just SEAL Team 10) by shining a spotlight on the horror and the bravery of war.
Lone Survivor runs 121 minutes and is Rated R for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language.
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