Synopsis: Marcus Luttrell and his team set out on a mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, in late June 2005. When they are compromised Marcus and his team are left to fight for their lives in one of the most valiant efforts of modern warfare.
The story of Lone Survivor, overcoming incomprehensible odds and the power of man’s instinct to survive at all costs, wrapped up in the hyper-emotive shroud of the American Military presence in Afghanistan, was always going to run the risk of crossing into jingoistic, myopically patriotic backslapping. So it is to the enormous credit of Peter Berg and his cast that they managed to tell such an emotive story with grit, focus and minimal saccharine manipulation.
Based on a true story, Lone Survivor is adapted from the book of the same name by Marcus Luttrell (played by an enigmatic and engaging Mark Whalberg, also on board as the film’s Producer). Luttrell was one of a 4 man Navy Seal Forward Reconnaissance Team, along with Lt. Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster), deployed from Bagram Airbase in 2005 to conduct surveillance on a high ranking Taliban general ahead of the Afghan elections, an operation codenamed Red Wings (the full story can be found here). However when their mission was compromised they were left with a literal rock and hard place decision to kill or release the civilians who had stumbled into their makeshift mountainside camp. To release them would be to accept defeat and give themselves deathly odds of getting away through the harsh mountain terrain before a village of Taliban soldiers hunted them down. To kill them would be in violation of the Rules of Engagement, murder and an almost certain life sentence for all involved. Whatever their decision they were in it together, Brothers bound by a code stronger than any blood. Ultimately it was the right and honorable course of action that led them into an extraordinary fight for their lives.
Peter Berg described Lone Survivor as the personal film he wanted to make following the critical and commercial panning that mega budget board game-cum-action thriller [sic] Battleships took. And while a lot of film makers would scoff at the idea of a personal film coming with a $40m budget, this is Berg’s love letter to every man and woman who has given their lives in the name of their country. An inference reinforced by the memorial montage to all those who perished during Operation Redwings that precedes the film’s closing credits. Some may find it a step too far after one and half hours of brutal, and often relentless, warfare. Most though will find it a fitting tribute and focusing reminder that 19 individuals lost their lives, and 19 families were devastated, by the events Berg so intrusively reconstructed. After a slow burn first act punctuated by a series of romanticized visions of base life and operational banter, it is the last two thirds, sounded by the single crack of a bullet meeting bone, that will stick long in the memory. And while Lone Survivor does teeter occasionally at the edge of sentimental sledgehammering, it quickly finds it was back through close quarters firefights, limb breaks and some wince inducing mountain tumbling that pushes it into the company of Platoon and Black Hawk Down. Berg makes you feel every crack, every splinter, every blow, every contact as if he were beating you with a rock in your seat.
As someone who has never so much as worn camouflage ironically, let alone thought of signing up for the military, I found Lone Survivor to be an inspiring tale of courage and brotherhood in the face of insurmountable odds. I can’t imagine being able to sit through it if I had someone I loved currently deployed in combat. It would simply have been too much.
Conclusion: A brutal and heartfelt take on a true story that encapsulates the drive to survive under incredible odds to the contrary. At times it steps into saccharine patriotism, but it is only ever with the right intentions as Berg pays his respect to the men and women who choose to place themselves in harms way for the sake of others.
As a slight aside, anyone who has seen Berg’s fantastic high school football drama Friday Night Lights will immediately have spotted this as his movie in the first 10 minutes, with a series of sun drenched shots scored by Steve Jablonsky of Texas indie darlings Explosions In The Sky that could have been a direct lift from FNL.
Cast: Mark Whalberg, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana