Saturday, January 11, 2014

Lone Survivor (2013) Review

Directed by Peter Berg
Going into a movie like Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, the true story of the failed 2005 "Operation Red Wings” Navy SEALs mission, it is hard to not have high expectations. The one thing that had me unsure about the film’s potential was the fact that Berg was at the helm. His previous war movie was The Kingdom, which basically failed on all levels. This was movie was somewhat different, but the results were only moderately better.

The title of the film brings with it a certain level of anticipation. Not only is it clear that everyone is going to die but one, but the movie is so recent. The survivor is still alive (Marcus Luttrell, played by Mark Wahlberg), and he wrote the book. You would figure that the movie is going to be super heroic, but that is not who the SEALs are. From the opening shots of the film, a montage of the grueling real life SEALs training, you know that this movie is going to be gritty and unrelenting. Sadly, as the movie goes along, the only part that truly fits that description is the violence itself. It is the most painful war violence I have seen this side of Tae Guk Gi.
Berg’s direction is actually quite good here, making the audience feel as if they really are stuck on that mountainside with the four soldiers getting ambushed by the Taliban and torn apart by bullets and emotional turmoil. These types of scenes are where the movie truly takes off. Essentially, the entire middle portion of the movie is a battle scene. It is frantically edited and fascinating to watch. Most of it is simply carnage, watching them constantly retreating and falling down the sides of the mountain. How any of them did not die in their collisions with trees and rocks is unbelievable in itself. The actors wear the pain and panic on their faces well, making the audience truly feel like we knew what they were going through…but we honestly have no idea and probably never will truly understand what that was like.
The actors all give fine performances. The only issue is that they are almost all miscast. First off, Mark Wahlberg is far too old for that role. He plays it well, but maybe 10 years ago he would have been an ideal casting choice. He is just so good at humanizing characters that we are able to accept him. Taylor Kitsch is interesting, but I thought that he would have fit much easier into the Luttrell role. Seeing him as the authority and commander did not fit the performance he was going for. I actually bought Emile Hirsch in his role, but he gave the weakest performance. Something about his big emotional scene fell flat. The only flawless casting choice was Ben Foster, who nailed everything about what it is to be a soldier. I just wanted more of him. Speaking of that, Eric Bana…totally wasted. You get such a small glimpse into these characters that we do not really care about them the way we do in the great battle pictures like Platoon or Tigerland.

The movie is much more concerned with making a tribute to the SEALs. From the beginning training montage, to the awkward transition to the battlefield with a voiceover talking about what it means to be a SEAL, to the final tribute to the fallen, it will be difficult to find any dry eyes in the theater. The audience will almost certainly applaud out of respect, but it is hard to tell if the same would have happened without those manipulative tactics.
This is where we come to the main issue with the movie: the screenplay. The movie had no idea what it wanted to be. With the strange way the movie started and ended, it is clear that the studio had a large hand in making the movie what it is. It is very marketable to make a very American war movie that makes the audience want to lace up and join the soldiers, but it seems very outdated. It also skimped on the details, portraying weeks in just a day or two. Also, only once is the enemy showed as human, which in the movie’s best scene, our four heroes have a heated discussion on whether to let their prisoners go or off them on the spot, knowing almost certainly that they would go straight back to the base and tell their target of the Americans’ location. After that, we return to the Hollywood war movie clichés where the enemies appear to be savages, screaming in incomprehensible rage and coming out of the shadows. Only once do we even get some subtitles, which is far after the battle is over and is too late. The movie is more concerned with simply showing a skewed perspective of what is was like to be on the American’s side inside the battle. What the movie is best at is showing the brotherhood that these guys had, as well as the process it took to get the job done and how it changed due to circumstances.

Peter Berg does his best with what he was given. The sound editing is greatly exaggerated at times, and it is hard to really follow such a brutal and intense book by the letter when you are working for a studio. The movie wanted to be the next The Hurt Locker, but its budget was way too great. If it had stripped it down and upped the in-battle emotion, it could have been like that. Instead, we get a focused battle picture that also wants to be a wide-scoping American war movie in the vein of Saving Private Ryan. You cannot have both. This story does not hold up to those standards, mainly because there is very little story to begin with. The movie is an extended combat scene tied together by the shameless patriotic Hollywood formula.
You may feel like you saw a great movie because you will probably be tearing up, but do not be fooled. This is half of a great movie. If the movie wanted to really show the process and heroic nature of these frontline soldiers, then the movie should have started and ended on the mountain. Instead, we get what felt like a documentary beginning and end, with the meat of the story providing the only true thrills and drama. It is a shame that this is how the incredible story was told. I wish the movie were a documentary, taking a page out of The Tillman Story’s book. Under those guidelines, it would have been much easier to accept the movie on its merit and hear from the source what it was really like to be on that mountain, see your brothers die in a horrible gunfight, and what it is like to be the lone survivor. I guess we will have to wait for the next great American war movie, but judging by the public reception of this film so far, I might be in the minority in not anointing this one to that standard.


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