Magazine article Variety

War Is Hell in 'Survivor' Story

Magazine article Variety

War Is Hell in 'Survivor' Story

Article excerpt

War Is Hell in 'Survivor' Story

Leaving the summer-movie frivolity of "Battleship" behind him, writer-director Peter Berg delivers his most serious-minded work to date with "Lone Survivor," a scorching, often unbearably brutal account of a June 2005 military mission that claimed the lives of 19 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Kunar province. Adapted from the eyewitness narrative of now-retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, this dramatic reconstruction of Operation Red Wings is perhaps the most grueling and sustained American combat picture since "Black Hawk Down," as well as a prime example of how impressive physical filmmaking can overcome even fundamental deficiencies in script and characterization. Berg's blunt, pummeling style offers few nuances and makes no apologies, but his broad brushstrokes have clearly found an ideal canvas in this grimly heroic rendering of hell on earth.

There has been no shortage of Iraq War films in recent years, but no studio picture has addressed the still-ongoing conflict in Afghanistan at such length and detail as "Lone Survivor." The thrust here is decidedly personal rather than analytical, presenting one of the worst disasters in special-forces history as a mournful tribute to Luttrell's fallen comrades; those seeking a more expansive history of the conflict, an understanding of the enemy mindset or a critical interrogation of America's war on terror should look elsewhere. Still, in clearing a narrative path through the author's unabashedly patriotic memoir (co-written with Patrick Robinson), Berg has attempted to honor his subjects without jingoism.

Roughly the book's entire first half is compressed into the film's opening-credits sequence, a training-footage montage that suggests the near-impossible levels of physical strength, mental toughness and overall stamina it takes to join the ranks of the Navy SEALs. Among these elite soldiers are Hospital Corpsman Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), a 29-year-old Texas native, and his buddies Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Gunner's Mate Danny P. Dietz (Emile Hirsch); and Sonar Technician Matthew "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster), all deployed to Afghanistan in 2005.

Berg is no stranger to enclaves of American masculinity ("Friday Night Lights") or infernos in the Middle East ("The Kingdom"), but "Lone Survivor's" life-in-the-military prologue doesn't inspire much confidence. Still, the film begins to find its footing as it lays out the strategic groundwork for a mission targeting Taliban commander Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami) and his fighters in the mountains of Kunar.

Trouble arises when the four SEALs, despite having carefully concealed themselves along the slopes of Sawtalo Sar, are discovered by a trio of Afghan goatherds. The SEALs must decide whether to ensure the goatherds' silence by killing them, or to release them in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. After some glib but tense debate about the potential ramifications of either option, the team, led by Murphy, votes to free them.

Confirming the SEALs' worst fears, the youngest of the goatherds is shown racing down the mountain - in unnecessary, faux-suspenseful slow-motion - to inform the Taliban leaders. As clumsy as the filmmaking can be in these moments, Berg's inelegant style turns fully immersive once the deadly ambush begins. …

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