Wednesday, January 15, 2014
"Lone Survivor" review
"Lone Survivor" tells the harrowing true story of Marcus Luttrell who, along with his team of Navy SEALs, was caught in a violent battle against enemy combatants in the mountains behind an Afghan village. As the title of the movie suggests, Luttrell wound up being the sole surviving member of this four-team squad and he has made it his mission to tell this story and keep the spirit of his Navy SEAL brothers alive. The strength of "Lone Survivor" is its overall unwavering emotion, which holds these SEALs to such high regard and does its best to do right by them. But, that unwavering emotion also presents a number of problems in a film that tries hard to go for realism. There are bound to be some exaggerations and the film straddles a very thin line between honorable tribute and over-glorification. And it straddles that line recklessly.
In the beginning, we are treated with a montage that shows Navy SEAL training in great detail. This footage was provided to writer/director Peter Berg by the Navy and it provides important context to what will come later. The people we are about to see have already been thoroughly battle-tested before they even hit the Middle East with many other trainees being forced to quit due to their inability to withstand the punishment. The men we see are the ones who withstood that punishment and it's important to establish this as they're about to go through the greatest test of their lives.
Moreover, the film establishes a sense of brotherhood between the four primary characters. There's the aforementioned Marcus (Mark Wahlberg), along with LT Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster). These are all based an actual people
and those are their real names. Wahlberg, Kitsch, Hirsch, and Foster all do these men great justice, doing their best to present them as individuals despite little time being spent on characterization. It's their job, above everything else, to protect each other and to never leave a man behind and we see through all their battles and rigorous training that this mentality has formed a deep bond among them all.
They are lead by LCDR Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) who sends the team on a mission called Operation Red Wings on June 28th, 2005. The goal is to capture and/or kill a notorious Taliban leader and these SEALs are sent out to the mountains to track him down. This plan gets foiled when the men are discovered by a sheep herder and two boys. What follows is my favorite scene in the film: the four SEALs have a serious moral conundrum on their hands and must decide whether to kill these people so they aren't at risk of being found, or to let them go and prevent a controversy. Lt. Murphy ultimately decides to let them go and obey the Rules of Engagement, but soon after they are found by an entire Taliban squad.
It's definitely an interesting moral dilemma that is presented, but it's unfortunately marred by the endless combat that follows. While the battle scenes are often intense and gripping, there is very little nuance and focus in these scenes. Peter Berg seems primarily interested in the wounds these SEALs collect as opposed to the staging of the battle itself. By focusing solely on the bravery and the relentless of these SEALs, we lose a sense of what the actual stakes are at any given moment and of their mindset as they continue to fight. My main issue with this is that, we already know how incredibly brave these men are, it does not need to be overstated. It gets to a point where it starts to become heavy-handed, especially during the three SEALs' death scenes.
The film is also a bit egregious with the way it depicts the rescue of Marcus Luttrell. He's taken in by an unnamed Afghani villager who helps him (for reasons given to us at the film's conclusion). In real life, Luttrell spent four days with this villager where he was taken care of before he's finally found by the rescuers. In the movie, this is where things get kind of weird. The entire sequence seems incredibly rushed. A battle (that never actually took place) erupts between the villagers and the Taliban which leads to some intense action sequences and an unbelievable fight scene involving Marcus. The film would have been just as fascinating, if not more so, if it just stuck to the facts. And it just seems unfair to the villager who risked his life and his family's life in order to save Marcus. There is so much that could have been mined and it would have given the film more of a sense of morality. As it's presented, unfortunately, we get too much "rah rah" action as opposed to a gripping story.
At the end, we never really get to learn much about the fallen Navy SEALs. So much time is spent on how these men died that we never really get to see how they live. It's amazing just what these SEALs go through and it's a testament to the training they received when they first signed up. But, they are still men. They're still human beings. They loved each other like brothers. It would have been more potent if we focused on their humanity instead of putting so much emphasis on the wounds. They aren't gods and it's disingenuous to treat them as such.
There really is an amazing and gripping story to be told here, but Peter Berg's affinity for battle wounds and military combat undermines the entire process. This is a country that has grown more divided and has become tired and weary of the wars that we've fought. These Navy SEALs were real people who had families, got married, and had children. They were sent out to do a job and were extraordinarily well-trained. What was most fascinating to me was how they interacted with each other, how they discussed strategy, how they debated intelligently about serious moral dilemmas. By the end, we are given a montage of the real men who actually died in Operation Red Wing. It's a nice, fitting tribute to these fallen soldiers, I just wish the rest of the movie stayed true to that tribute.
Marcus Luttrell is human. He has suffered serious emotional and psychological trauma since the operation took place. He has been given a service dog to help him deal with those wounds. I could never do what he did. I am not nearly as strong as him or as strong as those close to me who have fought in the military. We should celebrate these people. We should celebrate the Afghani who showcased his own humanity in saving Marcus Luttrell. But we should not be celebrating, or relishing, in the fight itself. "Lone Survivor" is still a solid and emotional tribute to these soldiers and it's definitely worth the watch, but the way it glorifies the battles that kills these soldiers, and provides the surviving ones so much trauma, is worrisome to me.