Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com
Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriter: Peter Berg, based on Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson’s book “Lone Survivor”
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emilie Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig
Screened at: Universal, NYC, 11/14/13
Opens: December 27, 2013
When Touchstone Pictures released “Pearl Harbor” in 2001, the studio was apparently so afraid of the impact on Americans of the Japanese victory over our naval shipyard that director Michael Bay tacked on a feel-good ending. Specifically, by adding the Doolittle Raid, a big American success on April 18, 1942 on Tokyo and Honshu Island, we showed ‘em that their territory was vulnerable to a U.S. military action. No such saccharine finale from Peter Berg, who directs and wrote the script for “Lone Survivor.” The title serves as a spoiler, if you will, telling us in the audience that only one U.S. combatant survived a brutal battle between the elite SEALs and the Taliban in an Afghan village. The film is based on actual events, and to prove this we are treated to a series of still pictures before the credits showing the happier SEALs with their brides. A blissful bride sharing a cake with her groom is not exactly what he’d expect in a land some 6,700 miles from New York, but there’s reason to believe that our fighting men, based on the planning of an attack whose aim was to take out Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), a Taliban leader, would be wholly successful.
But successful was not to be, though ultimately the U.S. won a Pyrrhic victory from this campaign. Since Mark Wahlberg is a producer of this movie, you might want to take a wild guess as who the lone survivor would be. As depicted, the actual campaign, known as Operation Red Wings, may bring to mind “Zero Dark Thirty,” our successful move to take out public enemy number one, though a closer relative would be Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down,” a mission of 123 elite fighters in Somalia whose aim was to capture two renegade warlords.
The most involving parts of the picture are the scenes of SEALs training. The elite squadron are subjected to testing their ability to hold their breath under water, to move rapidly across rocky landscapes, to climb ropes, to run, and do everything designed to weed out those who’d ring the bell and deposit their helmets on the ground to indicate their resignation from the force.
Despite the incredible training, the mission to capture or kill a Taliban man responsible for the deaths of twenty Marines, is a disaster. The action is based on Marcus Luttrell’s book co-written by Patrick Robinson that deals with the debacle beginning in July 2005 taking place near the Afghan-Pakistani border. The team is small: Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny P. Dietz (Emile Hirsch, and Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Forster). They shoot the breeze, conversing with one another with no restrictions on the f word, offering no dialogue that might threaten Shakespeare. The dog-fight takes place in the mountains of Kunar (filmed entirely in New Mexico), the camera shifting frequently from the U.S. Bagram base to the battlefield. The SEALs are surprised by three unarmed goatherds with their flocks, a trio that could conceivably warn the Taliban of the Americans’ presence—which leads to a debate about options, including whether to kill them, tie them up, or release them per Geneva Convention. The choice is moral but tactically the wrong one.
The section of the movie that will be loved by fans of computer and video games is a forty-minute, virtually non-stop shooting gallery. When a Taliban fighter is shot in the head by a Yank with a scope rifle, the blood spurts up convincingly. When an American is shot, we see the wound close-up as bullets tear into legs, backs and heads of the heavily outnumbered SEALs. Several times, the SEALs tumble downward over the sharp rocks, landing on large rocks beneath with a thump. Credit Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger as the make-up team that could result in an Oscar in that realm.
During the entire time, little if any attention is given to differentiate the characters, perhaps by having them discuss their families back home, why they joined the SEALs, or what are their hopes and dreams after the war (assuming that this war will end). The film happily does not paint every man with a turban as an enemy. An extended take finds a group of villagers on a rescue mission, with neither the American nor the Afghans able to say a single word in the other’s language. (Don’t they teach the SEALs at least how to say “hello” and “thank you” in, presumably, Pashto? Dari?)
The movie does give us living large in America a look at both the camaraderie of our fighters who are ready to die for one another, but for the most part there is only bare human interest in these courageous folks.
Rated R. 121 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – C+
Acting – B-
Technical – B
Overall – B-