D: Peter Berg / 121m
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig, Yousuf Azami, Ali Suliman, Sammy Sheik
Based on the book by Marcus Luttrell, a serving Navy SEAL in Afghanistan in 2005, Lone Survivor tells the story of how Luttrell and three fellow SEALs found themselves under attack from the Taliban when a mission, Operation Red Wings, went horribly wrong.
Sent to locate and if possible, terminate the life of high-ranking Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Azami), four SEALs, Luttrell (Wahlberg), Murphy (Kitsch), Dietz (Hirsch) and Axelson (Foster), find their target but at a camp where they would be heavily outnumbered if they engaged with Shah and his men. With their comms down, the group fall back to a position of safety before they attempt to reach higher ground for a better chance of their comms working. There they are discovered by a trio of goat herders. Stopping them from getting away, Luttrell and the rest of the team are faced with the dilemma of what to do with them. The SEALs can either let them go, tie them up and leave them (with a good chance that the goat herders would perish after time), or kill them outright there and then. Dietz and Axelson are keen for the third option to happen but Luttrell argues against it, until Murphy, as the team leader, decides they must be let go, despite knowing that the trio will tell the Taliban their location. With the goat herders released, the four men have to get to higher ground and try and contact their base so they can be rescued.
Soon, Shah’s militia have caught up with them and the SEALs find themselves in a running firefight. Still trying to contact their base, one by one the men are either shot or suffer injuries – Axelson twists an ankle, Dietz loses two or three fingers – that hamper their escape. And one by one, the SEALs lose their lives until only Luttrell remains. Faced with the daunting task of making it out alive by himself, Luttrell’s luck changes when he is discovered by nearby Pashtun villagers led by Gulab (Suliman). He is given shelter while the villagers arrange for the nearest US base to be contacted, and Luttrell’s rescue can be effected. Before that can happen, though, Shah’s men, led by second-in-command Taraq (Sheik), learn of his whereabouts and attack the village…
Luttrell’s story is a remarkable one, a true tale of heroism and courage set against tremendous odds, and one in which his determination to survive reinforces how powerful that determination can be in an individual. It’s worth noting that when Luttrell was found by the Pashtun villagers he had a number of fractures, a broken back, and various shrapnel wounds; later he sustained a gunshot wound as well. We should salute the man’s bravery. Lone Survivor is a testament to that, and to the team’s bravery as a whole.
However, under Peter Berg’s direction, Lone Survivor doesn’t quite hit the mark. The one thing that’s missing from the movie is, perversely, any real sense of who these men are, even Luttrell. We get no back stories, just perfunctory mentions of family back home, and the by-now familiar hazing that goes on in probably every military unit around the world. All four men are presented as there were at that point in time; there’s no depth, no understanding of why these men have become SEALs or what it means to them. In many ways, the script – adapted by Berg from Luttrell’s memoir – avoids getting to know these men, and this has a desensitising effect when they’re ambushed later in the movie. When they come under fire, and begin sustaining injuries, there’s no emotional connection for the audience to make. There are two scenes where the men are forced to put distance between them and Shah’s men by hurling themselves down rocky hillsides. Instead of wincing at the punishment being (self-)inflicted, the viewer is instead left admiring the stunt work involved.
The extended encounter between the SEALs and the Taliban is set up well and there is a degree of tension before the first shot is fired. After that, though, the movie settles for becoming the cinematic version of a video game, with – for the viewer – increased confusion as to where each man is in relation to the other, and even to their enemy. When Murphy reaches a ledge where he can use his satellite phone to contact the base, it seems too far from where his comrades are, at that point, pinned down. The same applies when Axelson is separated from Luttrell; again he appears to have travelled some considerable distance (albeit to no avail). It’s these little anomalies that undermine the narrative and keep the firelight from being as tense and exciting as it should be. When Luttrell finally manages to elude his attackers and is found by his rescuers, you have no real idea of how far he’s travelled, or even how he’s managed to avoid detection.
With all the attention given over to the physical exploits on display, there’s little for Wahlberg et al to do but decry each successive injury and show how much pain they are in. Even in the relatively quieter moments in the village, where Luttrell befriends a young boy, there’s little for Wahlberg to do except look fearful and in pain (although there is a wonderful moment involving the word ‘knife’).
Ultimately, Lone Survivor feels like a movie that has just missed out on its full potential. Berg’s direction is more than adequate for the material and while his script doesn’t help his own efforts in that area, he still manages to elicit good performances from his lead players. The photography is polished and shows off the rugged countryside where the action takes place to often beautiful effect, and the sound editing is appropriately exciting and immersive during the firefight. With a couple of uncredited appearances by Luttrell – watch for the SEAL who knocks over the coffee that newbie Patton (Ludwig) then has to clear up – Lone Survivor may have that participant’s blessing, but its audience will feel they need a lot more before they can give theirs.
Rating: 7/10 – while the action sequences are expertly staged and executed, they’re still not as exciting as they should have been, and the performances are bogged down by a lack of depth; not a complete misfire, but one that needed to beef up the characters and engage the audience’s sympathy a whole lot more.