'Lone Survivor' Is a Formidable Piece of Storytelling

Both a visceral and heartbreaking experience, Lone Survivor honors truth through fiction in a way that is both rare and haunting.

Lone Survivor

Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Mark Walberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, and Taylor Kitsch.
Distributor: Universal
Screenwriter: Peter Berg
Release date: 2014-06-03

Both a visceral and heartbreaking experience, Lone Survivor honors truth through fiction in a way that is both rare and haunting. Based on the book by real-life Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the film follows Luttrell and three of his comrades on a mission to take out a member of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The mission is going smoothly until the SEALs are stumbled upon by an old goat herder and two boys. Luttrell and his men must make a decision, murder their new captives and continue with the mission, or set them free and abandon the operative. They understand the gravity of what it is they must do, and while there is some discussion of killing them, they ultimately decide to let the three go and retreat back into the mountains before the herders are able to alert the Taliban.

The SEALs believe they made the right decision, but the weight of the action comes at a devastating price, and the events that ensue are nothing short of haunting.

There have been films in the vein of Lone Survivor before, and there will most likely be more to come, but this movie sets itself apart through the dedication of the filmmakers, which is carefully translated to the screen. Luttrell met with a few directors before ultimately choosing director Peter Berg, who also penned the screenplay. Berg blends the appropriate level of respect and accuracy. He manages to mold a narrative that is sentimental without excess of idealization. The film follows good, true men, flawed and human, but dedicated to their cause and to each other.

The opening sequence sets the stage for the film's general tone. Footage of Navy SEAL training is cut together, showing the brutal conditions that these men are required to endure before donning the uniform. While this footage seems only to be a stylistic choice, it also functions as a sort of truth meter for the film. It displays real-life conditions so that when the fighting really begins, audiences can realistically believe these men are able to press on with the injuries sustained.

The performances are fiercely committed, without a single weak link. Mark Walberg (The Departed, The Other Guys) leads the cast as Marcus Luttrell, both identifiable and loyal to his "brothers" in the field. Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma, The Messenger) gives nothing short of remarkable performance as Matt Axelson, for Foster is one of those brilliant performers who can simultaneously disappear into a character while at the same time playing it in a way unique to his own style.

Emile Hirsch (Milk, Into the Wild) gives a solid performance in a role that seems very much in keeping with the sort of character he most typically portrays, though it does not take away from the weight of his turn as Danny Dietz. The most unrecognizable of the group is Taylor Kitsch (Savages, The Grand Seduction) who, with a thick beard and noble dignity, takes on the role of Mike Murphy. It is Murphy with whom the audience first connects as he stumbles into Luttrell's room in the early hours of the morning to ask how expensive it would be to buy the love of his life a horse.

The slow, nostalgic pace of these opening encounters sets a strong foundation for the film, which soon erupts into intense battle sequences. The visceral nature of these scenes, with brutal visuals and the articulately detailed sound editing and design, makes for powerful filmmaking. It appears that in making Lone Survivor Berg has elevated his own talents, making a film with more fierceness and commitment to the accuracy than any of his previous work.

While there are always limitations when working with material based on a true story, with every American war film that takes place in the Middle East comes the discussion of portrayal of the Americans and the Afghans. The tendency to idealize or vilify the idea of these people persists in the media, and yet this film attempts to remain as honest as it is able, giving due to both the soldiers that fought in a far off land and the local people who stood up to protect their homeland from corrupt internal forces.

Perhaps Lone Survivor's only pitfall is the omission of those in the Afghanistan community who lost their lives fighting their oppressors. Moving tribute is paid at the close of the film to the SEALs, but when the aftermath is explained in more detail, the movie elects not to say how many died protecting their homes.

The Blue-ray and DVD combo pack includes a wealth of special features, including tributes to the fallen and interviews during which the actors humbly acknowledge the gravity of their roles, as well as the responsibility they feel in portraying these men. A digital copy of the film is provided, as well as additional interviews and footage to give audiences more insight into the life of Luttrell and the filmmaking process.

This movie clearly has an angle from which it chooses to approach its content, but it does so diligently and skillfully. Even at the height of nostalgia or cinematic license, Lone Survivor proves itself to be a formidable piece of storytelling.


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