Lone Survivor

Cast:
Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell
Emile Hirsch as Danny Dietz
Taylor Kitsch as Mike Murphy
Alexander Ludwig as Shane Patton
Ben Foster as Matt Axelson
Eric Bana as Lt. Cmdr. Erik S. Kristensen
Jerry Ferrara as Sgt. Hasslert
Scott Elrod as Peter Musselman
Dan Bilzerian asDan Healy
Yousuf Azami as Ahmed Shahd
Rohan Chand as Gulab’s Young Son
Ali Suliman as Gulab
Josh Berry as Communications Seal Taylor
Sammy Sheik as Taraq

Directed by Peter Berg

Story:
In the summer of 2005, a group of Navy SEALs stationed in Afghanistan are assigned to find and kill a vicious Taliban leader named Ahmad Shahd as part of “Operation Red Wings.” When their position is compromised, they end up outmanned and outgunned in a firefight that will leave most of them dead.

Analysis:
Director Peter Berg has already proven his strong admiration and respect for our fighting forces, going back to “The Kingdom,” one of his earlier films that expressed his interest in the Middle East. And honestly, whatever bad things you might say about his previous movie “Battleship” (and I’ve said a lot), it at least confirmed the filmmaker’s respect for our fighting men of the military, both those presently serving and our oft-neglected veterans.

After an opening title sequence showing Navy SEAL recruits going through the grueling exercises necessary to get selected for the elite squad, we watch as the bloodied body of Mark Wahlberg’s Marcus Luttrell is carried by a helicopter to a medical facility, a sign of what’s to come later on. But this is clearly an ensemble piece and we learn that pretty quickly as we meet the other men in Luttrell’s squad–Emile Hirsch’s Dan Dietch, Taylor Kitch’s Mike Murphy and Ben Foster as Matt Axelton–each whom have their own specialties and personalities. Unlike many military movies where the soldiers all are clean-shaven with tight crew cuts, these guys all have hair and beards, maybe to make it easier for them to fit into their surroundings.

It doesn’t take long, less than 15 minutes, before we get right into the mission, for the four soldiers to reconnoiter on a mountain overlooking a village where a Taliban leader has been spotted. It’s their job to take him out. While they get to the observation point without problems, things get complicated when they’re discovered by a sheep-herder and his sons and they have to decide whether to kill them or let them go, potentially alerting the Taliban to their whereabouts. At the same time, their radio isn’t working and the lack of communications puts them in grave danger as Taliban soldiers surround their location.

Comparisons to Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” are certainly apt, although on a much smaller scale, but the main body of the film takes place on the mountain, building up to the point when things start going wrong and that’s when it explodes. Cornered, the soldiers end up throwing themselves down the side of the mountain, a grueling scene where you feel every impact they make on their way down thanks to the sound effects and the practical make-up work done by Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero.

Although Wahlberg is clearly older than the others, he fits right in with the rest of the cast and he gives a solid performance that’s well-matched by the other three actors as we watch them on the mountain. Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch are both especially convincing as they deliver on all aspects of what this sort of role requires in terms of drama.

I’m going to put a SPOILER WARNING here, but if you know the title of the movie and know that it’s based on a book by Marcus Luttrell, then you can probably figure out that a lot of other soldiers die in the movie. The reason that we actually feel true empathy with the losses is that Berg and his cast do a great job giving all of them personalities before the action begins. Unfortunately the film gets quite a bit less interesting when it’s just following Mark Wahlberg and Luttrell’s attempts to survive. While it’s a fairly long movie, it never really feels slow until that point thanks to a number of impressive, organic-feeling set pieces that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Other key characters include Alexander Ludwig as the eager new recruit to the SEALs and Eric Bana as the older ops leader, both of whom remain on the base until it turns into a rescue mission. Berg has also filled the cast with a number of decent Arabic actors, and though most of them are mainly fodder for the SEALs to take out, there’s a key role for Ali Suliman as an Afghan man who helps Marcus survive and keep from being caught by the Taliban.

It’s a pretty dark and serious movie, but there’s still room for some humor in the interplay between the SEALs, especially with their razzing of the younger recruit played by Ludwig. One of the problems with a movie like this is that there is a general lack of women–none, in fact–which does keep it truthful to that world of Navy SEALs, but when you compare a movie like this to something like last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” it feels like the whole is more like that film’s macho climax rather than being more even and balanced.

The film features an interesting score by Steve Jablonsky, one that’s almost subliminal at times but drops out just enough that it allows the soldiers’ time on the mountain to feel more naturalistic, especially when the firefight begins, rather than overdoing it with lots of big strings to play up the emotional content of the film.

Make sure to stick around through the end credits for an extremely moving portrait of the actual SEALs that died on that failed mission accompanied by a tearful version of David Bowie’s “Heroes” by Peter Gabriel. It really drives home the point about what these men fought and died for.

The Bottom Line:
A solid effort from director Peter Berg in turning Marcus Luttrell’s story into a edge-of-your-seat military thriller that never feels over-the-top or sensationalistic and creates just the right tone for such a powerful and dramatic story.

Lone Survivor opens in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday, December 25 before its nationwide roll-out on Friday, January 10, 2014.

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