BY STEWART SMITH
“Lone Survivor” is cinema as tribute.
Writer/director Peter Berg isn’t really interested in showcasing the full horrors of war or exposing deep truths about why we fight. What he is wholly driven by, however, is his admiration of and respect for the men that are put in harm’s way as they go about their operations. “Lone Survivor” is his two-hour salute to the soldiers who died during Operation: Red Wings in Afghanistan in 2005.
From start to finish, Berg’s primary goal is to make us feel the weight of loss. Following a montage showing the metaphorical (and almost literal) hell which SEAL recruits endure, we are slowly introduced to the core soldiers involved with the operation: Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Matt “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster) and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg).
These men are brothers. They laugh together, they bust each other’s chops, they talk about their wives and lives and yearn for a return to normalcy in the way that only those bonded by extreme circumstances can. I just wish that we had gotten a bit more time with them. I suppose in a way it’s a compliment that I was left wanting more, but it feels like we need a couple extra scenes to truly and properly invest in them as characters, at least in order to be as impacted as Berg wants us to be when things go awry during the operation.
Still, we get at least enough to understand them and Kitsch, Hirsch, Wahlberg and Foster all do excellent work at giving us men with distinct personalities and not just playing expertly trained beards armed with high-caliber weaponry. Foster steals the show more than once and Hirsch is better at portraying a SEAL than I ever thought possible. I had more or less given up on Kitsch thanks to his recent film output, but he finally proves he’s got some substance worth mining as a film actor and Wahlberg is quite solid as the anchor of the squad.
I also have to give Berg praise for staging what is one of the most intense action sequences I’ve seen in a war film in a long time. It never hits the emotionally jarring heights of, say, “Saving Private Ryan,” but then again few films likely ever can or will. Still, it’s a very skillfully crafted (nearly half-hour long) sequence that manages to be exciting while still communicating the harrowing chaos of a firefight without ever confusing us as viewers. Frankly, it feels like something of a minor miracle given the overall state of modern action filmmaking.
Given that Berg’s intentions are easy to parse, there’s little room to argue that he did anything other than achieve his primary goal. “Lone Survivor” feels like the biggest, most elaborate and expensive “In Memoriam” segment ever produced. If that’s what you’re looking for out of a film like this, one that has nothing but praise and adulation for these brave soldiers, then “Lone Survivor” will like hit every mark needed for you.
If all I’m to judge a movie on is how successful a director was in achieving their vision, then there’s little else to say. And it’s not that the story is poorly told or constructed or that these men don’t deserve to have their fight for each others’ lives dramatized in a Hollywood production. But I couldn’t help but feel there was a certain level of nuance and depth missing here, some deeper bit of thematic resonance that could have turned this good movie into something truly great.
For instance, I love that Berg took the time to fully detail the moral and ethical conflict ultimately led to these soldiers’ deaths. The operation was compromised when Afghan goat herders come across their position and each soldier lays out a perfectly reasonable and logical reason for their own desired course of action. Could any of us really blame them for either killing or leaving these herders (two of which are young boys) to die so that the soldiers’ lives could be spared? Certainly not.
That moment mines some thought-provoking stuff and I can’t help but feel that the whole movie would have become something truly great if more of that uncertainty and complexity had been present throughout. Much in the same way that I wish the Afghan villager (and his two millennia-old honor code) that saved Luttrell’s life had been given more than a few sparse scenes.
But like I said, “Lone Survivor” isn’t a bad movie as it capably accomplishes its goal of memorializing these men and their bravery. If nothing else, it’s precisely the sort of tribute to SEALs and their brotherhood that 2012’s “Act of Valor” so desperately tried to be. I just wish Berg had gone a bit further with his aims.