I walked out of this movie with a lump in my throat and fighting back tears. That’s probably the most important thing you need to know up front. Movies depicting military combat are hit and miss with me, and I rarely go back and watch them a second time, though I’ll make an exception for this one.
Lone Survivor portrays the horrific ordeal experienced by four Navy SEALs, whose remarkable courage and unwillingness to give up carried them through a horribly ill-considered mission. As played by Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch, these four sailors share an intense bond, a true “brotherhood” that reflects their rock-solid determination to see their mission carried out. Without getting into the specifics of the story, which should be discovered in a theater and not in a movie review, these men are tested to their limits physically, mentally and morally.
The problem I have with many war movies is the same issue most filmmakers have when shaping their vision: do you create a movie depicting war as hell on earth or do you try to make combat look exciting, even as soldiers are being blown to bits? Is it possible to give a war movie enough time to establish its characters or do we simply jump to watching these soldiers in the midst of gunfire and explosions? The hardest question: should the issue of moral responsibility and war being acceptable acts of murder be addressed? It’s a matter of taste for a filmgoer and a question of approach for a filmmaker. My favorite films that combine all of these elements smartly are The Thin Red Line, Platoon, Casualties of War and Born on the 4th of July.
I would have liked to gotten to know the four main characters better before they’re plunged into combat. The introductory scenes of them living on base, sleeping in spare rooms with bunk beds and wood paneling out of a summer camp, are amusing. The banter of the soldiers, shared by their team leader, played by Eric Bana, is loaded with jocular one-liners and quieter, private declarations of longing for the ones waiting for them at home. We get a lot of discussion about buying an expensive horse as a wedding present and not much else. I would have liked more layers to these characters. Then again, these are men defined by their actions, their bravery and ability to push themselves, even after receiving horrific injuries during combat.
The movie begins in a familiar fashion, with the details of the SEALs’ mission portrayed efficiently but in a way we’ve seen countless times before. Once we’re in Afghanistan, the film becomes unique. We’ve never seen an Afghanistan-set gunfight in the thick of the woods before. The discussion among the soldiers regarding the moral implications of their options is stunning. Director Peter Berg wants us to feel the brutal impact of every injury, bullet wound and broken bone. This is one of the most emotionally wrenching, powerful tributes to those who serve that I’ve ever seen.
The final act, with a soldier in the car of a protective village, depicts Middle Eastern soldiers in a manner both sympathetic and surprisingly moving. Everyone in the cast (even Kitsch, who had a bad movie year in 2012) are exceptional but Wahlberg’s performance in particular displays a raw vulnerability unusual for him. This is among his best, most intense film work. Berg’s film can be seen as an apology for his 2012 flop, the amusing guilty pleasure Battleship, which also starred Kitsch.
This is one of Berg’s best. It left me speechless.
Score: **** (1-5 Star Score)