Based on a true story, “Lone Survivor” is a shocking film. That Peter Berg — the man behind 2012’s embarrassing “Battleship” — could direct something not only entertaining but emotionally rich is truly shocking. Amid the usual drought of January, one film shines above the rest, snuggly fitting into the war film canon.
Much like “Black Hawk Down”, this isn’t a story of military victory but surviving the chaos. In the summer of 2005, SEAL Team 10 plans a major operation to take out Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), who is hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan. But Operation Red Wings hits a snafu when the four-man recon team — SO2 Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Lt. Michael P. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), SO2 Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and SO2 Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) — encounters three goat herders who might report to the Taliban.
Rather than murder an old man and two children, Lt. Murphy follows the rules of engagement, releases them and calls off the op. But communications are down and extraction isn’t going to be so immediate. Adding demise to isolation, the enemy moves quickly through their extended backyard. How do you think four SEALs, no matter how well trained they may be, fare against dozens of insurgents with machine guns, RPGs and a home-court advantage? What follows is a massive shootout, resulting in a lone survivor, as the on-the-nose title implies.
In a film that easily looks like a prequel to “Shooter” — Wahlberg even plays a sharpshooter once more — it would be easy to expect the worst: corny one-liners, juvenile humor and bloated action sequences. Even worse, as a film based on actual events, it could take reverence to bloated extremes, replacing realism with melodramatic patriotism. No so. Sure, this is definitely a “Go Joe” film, but you won’t hear any marching drums or Michael Bay-esque American flags blowing in slow motion. It tells a more universal story about one man’s ability to survive and accept help from unlikely places. Avoiding the usual action film tropes, soldiers don’t throw down for quite a while. But when the inevitable onslaught commences, the mayhem doesn’t let up until the third act, before it starts all over again.
That said, prepare yourself for breathtaking action sequences meant for the big screen. On two occasions, our war-torn heroes try their luck and jump off cliffs, hoping for the best as they roll and roll and roll. The vertigo-stricken need not apply. And unlike John McClane picking off foes in the middle of an open street in the “Die Hard” films, stray bullets riddle the air, slowly chipping away at the recon team. They’re heroes, but they’re far from invincible.
From the promotional material, “Lone Survivor” channels military propaganda –– the kind that screams, “I love America.” It hits those red, white and blue notes, but something more multidimensional also transpires. More than peppering racial stereotypes — that whole all-Afghans-are-terrorists bit many films content themselves with — we get a rounded story.
What the promos don’t show is the aftermath of the initial ambush. No spoilers here, but this is more than a story about monstrous terrorists vs. the American spirit. The Middle East isn’t a savage land hellbent on the destruction of life, liberty and cheeseburgers. Good exists and thrives beyond American borders, despite Fox News’ best efforts to portray otherwise (you heard me, now deal with it, Megyn Kelly).
Finally, Wahlberg takes a step in the right direction (just before he tarnishes his name once more in “Transformers 4” later this year). But alongside Kitsch, Hirsch, Foster and Eric Bana, as Lieutenant Commander Erik S. Kristensen, this is a powerhouse cast used incredibly well.
A primary element of this film is the deaths in the recon unit. Again, the title clearly states how many soldiers make it through this horrible endeavor. To help, Berg unites with his old “Friday Night Lights” show composers, the instrumental band Explosions in the Sky. Why mess with a good thing (including Berg’s golden boy, Kitsch, apparently)? The result is a thrilling film that quickly turns poetic. You’ll weep.
A soaring victory where cinematic disaster was expected. More than popcorn fun, Berg proves he can surpass his last enjoyable film, “The Rundown” (he doesn’t have a great track record), and make the impossible leap into more serious cinema.
Balancing intensity and heartfelt moments, “Lone Survivor” is a story as well made as it is re-watchable.
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