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Lone Survivor Gives Away Too Much

By Sandra Olmsted

Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor biggest problem is revealing who the lone survivor of the failed military operation will be at the beginning of the film. War films by definition and necessity are patriotic, jingoistic spectacles, and, undoubtedly an American war film, Lone Survivor celebrates the toughness and dedication of American servicemen in its excruciating battle scenes. Unfortunately, Berg robs the audience of connecting with all the soldiers and of feeling loss when they die. He also fails, as the writer of the script, to create characters which are individualized sufficiently and leaves the actors to fill in the blanks with what appears little direction or emphasis.

Based on ex-Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s war memoir, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, Berg’s film recreates this failed mission by putting the audience in the crosshairs of the fire fight that killed 19 American soldiers in June of 2005. Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), and his squad a get stranded in an arid Afghan forest above a village while on a mission to capture or kill Taliban commander Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), who killed 20 Marines the week before and who Berg introduces decapitating an American sympathizer.

Meanwhile, Berg makes some attempt to humanizes squad members Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson (Ben Foster) by revealing their dreams and loves, but there’s no true connection with these soldiers or the other 15 soldiers killed during a rescue mission.

While Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) monitors the operation from Bagram Air Force Base, bad communications and bad luck jeopardizes the mission. When some local goat herders— a teenager with an attitude, an old man, and a boy — stumble on the squad, the soldiers have to decide whether to abide by the Geneva Convention and let them go, or tie them up and let them freeze to death that night, or shoot them immediately.

In keeping with Luttrell’s account, the soldiers consider and blame the possible media reaction if they kill or endanger the goatherders. Letting the goatherders go precipitates a swarm of Taliban rebels attacking the four SEALs, who fight valiantly and spiritedly despite being outnumbers by about 150 to 4. It is a blood bath for the Afghans who are “clean” kills while Berg portrays the American soldier as nearly invincible supermen, who keep going despite taking multiple bullets and being bounced down rocky outcropping in search of better cover and a “cell phone” signal to call for helicopters. Ultimately, the injured and abandoned survivor must trust in the goodness of his fellow man when he is found by Gulab (Ali Suliman) and his young son, who adhere to the custom how a “guest” should be treated.

Lone Survivor compares to Black Hawk Down’s dauntingly vivid account of a U.S. military operation gone horribly wrong, to Rules of Engagement’s questioning of moral ambiguity during war, and to Saving Private Ryan’s intense, realistic opening scenes. Lone Survivor’s 40 minute, tautly-edited fire fight induces flinching and is, frankly, hard to watch, raising the question whether Berg made a patriotic film glorifying the soldiers’ sacrifices or one questioning whether war of any kind is worth the carnage. That question isn’t completely answered when, at the end, pictures of the actual soldiers parade passed while Peter Gabriel’s cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” plays.

Despite the use, at times, of music-video-style filmmaking to mimic recruitment commercials, Lone Survivor will not be the recruitment ad that Sands of Iwo Jima, starring John Wayne, perpetually is for the Marines.


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