Peter Berg’s Brutal ‘Lone Survivor’ Lacks Context

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Average: 5 (1 vote) Oscarman rating: 2.5/5.0
Rating: 2.5/5.0

Imagine a version of “Saving Private Ryan” that takes place entirely on the beaches of Normandy. It would have a visceral power purely through the horror of the recreation of war. However, it would lack the context of the rest of the narrative and lead one to question why the cinematic trip was worth taking. War is Hell? We got that. And we know that the men of “Lone Survivor” are heroes beyond what film can really capture. But watching them get torn apart by enemy bullets doesn’t automatically have dramatic resonance. Important subject matter alone does not make for rewarding, accomplished filmmaking and there’s not just not enough here beyond what borders on military torture porn to justify a look.

In 2005, four Seal Team 10 members embarked on a mission to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah in the Pech District of Afghanistan’s Kunar Province under the code name Operation Red Wings. Overseen by LCDR Erik S. Kristensen (Eric Bana), the quartet included Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Michael P. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg). The mission included a large chunk of time in which the soldiers would be out of radio communication as the hill they had to descend to the village in which Shah was holed up didn’t exactly have a cell phone tower. The men took their position and waited for the right moment to attack.

Lone Survivor
Lone Survivor
Photo credit: Universal Pictures

And then disaster happened in the form of potential collateral damage. The men are discovered by goatherders, including a young one, and a tough decision must be made. In one of the film’s best scenes, the men discuss how to deal with the discovery. Kill the innocent people? It’s not only morally wrong but could damage the cause overall if the bodies are discovered and their murder traced back to American soldiers. Let them go and risk them warning the villagers? It could lead to the deaths of these brave young men. Needless to say, there’s no easy answer and things get very bad before long. Bullets fly, RPGs are fired, and tragedy ensues. For about an hour, we’re pinned down on that mountain as skin is ripped apart by gunfire and the cacophony of bullets piercing the air is deafening.

The lengthy attack at the centerpiece of “Lone Survivor” is undeniably technically accomplished. Large chunks of it feel like it takes place in real time and rarely has a film more deftly captured the complete horror of realizing that you’re outmanned from above. Cover becomes your only hope. And yet even this section goes on and on and the intensity becomes numbing. We don’t know these characters well enough and so the purpose of the foundation of “Lone Survivor” becomes questionable. Why are we watching brave young men die in a horrible ambush? To what end? Technically accomplished, for sure, but not dramatically so.

Lone Survivor
Lone Survivor
Photo credit: Universal Pictures

It hurts the film to not have the context a larger-scale production would have offered. Apparently, Luttrell’s book, on which this is based, includes a lot more set-up, and Berg and his team make the mistake of racing to that mountain. We get a bit at the camp and that fascinating discussion pre-ambush but you can tell that Berg’s heart isn’t in it. He wants to get us on that mountain, to pin us down with those soldiers, but he forgets that horror needs context. There’s a stronger version of this story in which we get to know these four guys before going through Hell with them instead of racing to get there.

It’s through no fault of the performers, all of who are strong here, especially Foster and Wahlberg. This is not a lazy Wahlberg performance like “Contraband” or “Broken City.” His heart is in this piece from the beginning and the actors deserve credit for going to the physical extremes required by the script. And Berg knows how to stage an action sequence for its fullest effect. There’s nothing inherently wrong with what’s on-screen, it’s what’s missing and the lack of dramatic foundation in what’s there that ultimately fails the truth of this harrowing story.

“Lone Survivor” stars Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, and Eric Bana. It was written and directed by Peter Berg. It opens on January 10, 2014 and is rated R. content director Brian Tallerico

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