Movie Review: Lone Survivor (2013)

Categories: Movie Reviews
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Published on: 2014.02.13

I enjoyed Lone Survivor, but not in the “I had a great time!” way; it was more of a “I feel differently about my life now” feeling, which is rare with modern movies. The last war movie that provided a similar feeling was probably Saving Private Ryan in 1998.

◊ Metadata

IMDb page
Wikipedia entry
Run time: 2 hours, 1 minute (121 minutes)
MPAA rating: R (for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language)
Director: Peter Berg
Based on: Marcus Luttrell‘s book Lone Survivor

◊ Who’s In It

Mark Wahlberg stars as title character Marcus Luttrell, and is backed up by Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster — together portraying the four-man Navy SEAL team that gets most of the movie’s screen time. Eric Bana and Yousuf Azami co-star, and author Luttrell appears as at least three different men, each time only briefly.

For me, Foster was the actor to watch in this movie; while the others felt like Hollywood portrayals of SEALs, Foster seemed like he actually was one. He also looked the most like the real-life man he was portraying, Matthew “Axel” Axelson.

Wahlberg, as usual, carried his share of the load too.

◊ What It’s About

(I won’t consider this a “spoiler alert”, since the movie is based on real-life events — and the movie’s name tells you that there’s only one survivor.)

The movie is based on part of Luttrell’s 2007 book (a New York Times bestseller) of the same name, which details (among other things), the failed Operation Red Wings. A four-man Navy SEAL team was dropped near a village in Afghanistan, looking for Ahmad Shah. They were supposed to identify and observe Shah for a future team that would attempt to capture or kill him.

Instead, the four men were stumbled upon by local goatherds. When the SEALs let the goatherds go free, the locals ran to immediately inform Shah of the Americans’ presence, and the SEALs were quickly surrounded by Shah’s men. Three of the SEALs were killed in the ensuing firefight and Luttrell was badly wounded.

He was helped by nearby villagers who followed a centuries-old ethical code that required them to show ultimate hospitality and offer asylum. They defended him against further attacks from Shah until U.S. forces were able to extract Luttrell.

◊ What I Liked Most About It

The opening scenes — while the credits rolled — appeared to be actual footage of Navy SEALs in training (whether it was made for this film and doctored to look authentic, I couldn’t tell). In the absence of proper character development, these scenes helped to show how ordinary men become SEALs, how much of themselves they have to surrender to become part of such an elite team and how far they’re required to push themselves.

Later, as the men are pinned in the craggy rocks by Shah’s ambush, those earlier training scenes are still fresh in your mind as the SEALs ignore tremendous pain and refuse to believe defeat or death is possible until it happens.

The action also appeared to be realistically portrayed, though only a soldier who’s been in a firefight could be a true judge of that. I made my judgment based on the few scenes where the men slid/fell/tumbled down rocky hillsides — which is actually something I’ve experienced on several occasions, including the sense of relief you get when you realize you didn’t break into pieces after all.

One other thing I really enjoyed was how director Peter Berg intentionally left out some of the moral or political overtones that usually accompany such films, and simply portrayed the events. The only real ethical dilemma presented was when the four SEALs discussed whether to let the goatherds go free (risking their own lives), hold them captive (which would slow them down and possibly compromise the mission), or kill them outright (against the Rules of Engagement). The discussion didn’t feel contrived, since it actually happened and is an actual life-or-death decision that those in combat might be forced to make.

◊ What I Liked Least About It

There was little character development. I felt there was little to differentiate between the four main characters other than their names and appearances. Sure, the movie would have been slowed by intricate backstories, but perhaps a little more of the early casual conversation could have helped establish where the characters originated and what brought them to this point. About all I knew is that one of them was from Texas and another was about to get married.

◊ Overall Impression

What I came away with was two strong feelings. The first is that real-life stories sometimes make the best stories. I’ve been leaning this way in my reading habits as well, eschewing fiction for nonfiction quite regularly. It makes me want to see more movies based on real life events rather than contrived stories with unbelievable plot lines.

The second was more powerful, especially as I exited the theater in twilight and sat in my car for a moment before driving home. I eventually identified it as a mix of shame — for complaining of minor negative details of an otherwise pampered suburban life — and determination — to rise above, to do more things that matter, to think of my life in a larger context.

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