Lone Survivor (2014)
This review contains serious spoilers – although given the title of the film you can probably work them out. Read at your own risk.
A gripping tale of heroism, based on the true story of the ill-fated Operation Red Wings, the 2005 US mission to capture or kill the Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, Lone Survivor is one of the best military films of the last decades.
Going in to the film, the audience already knows the ending. The title gives it away, as does the opening sequence; of Wahlberg’s Marcus Luttrell, severely wounded, flat lining on a hospital table. We know he is the eponymous Lone Survivor, just as we know that the fate of each member of the team is sealed before we even meet them. Following this with the opening titles juxtaposed over stock footage or real Navy SEAL training, showing the lengths and horrors the men go through to become real SEALs, showing some washing out and giving up, as the rest power on through the gruelling training, and graduate. This may seem unnecessary, but it gives writer/director Peter Berg the perfect example of the mind-over-matter attitude of the SEALs, and given the sheer amount of injuries that SEAL Team Ten receive throughout Lone Survivor, it is key in explaining how they are able to carry on fighting despite their terrible wounds.
After a brief period where we get to know the members of SEAL Team Ten, Lt Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) Matthew ‘Axe’ Axelson (Ben Foster) and Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg.) We get enough of their back stories to get a good feel for the characters, of their brotherhood, and why they fight so hard for each other, before they are dispatched on their mission. Shortly into the mission the team is discovered by goat herders, an old man and two children, whom they capture, but release after deciding they are not willing to kill children to ensure the mission is uncompromised. Knowing this will lead to the Taliban pursuing them, they head for high ground, in the hope of finding somewhere defensible. Instead they find themselves on a false peak, in a near impossible to defend area, and unable to contact HQ for backup, the ambush begins.
The most accurate representation of modern warfare since Black Hawk Dawn, with scenes more intense and shocking than those of Omaha beach in Saving Private Ryan, Lone Survivor is a truly breathtaking film. It is utterly raw and intense, the fire fights beautifully choreographed, unfolding with brutal precision, the shoot move cover drills of the SEALs coming to life on the screen in the most gruelling, horrifying way. The majority of the last two thirds of Lone Survivor are one extended fire fight, every second you think there may be a break, that the SEALs have a second to regroup and recover, that they have evaded their pursuers, they are attacked again. Whoever choreographed the stunts and fire fights did a superb job, as no two are the same, and each is unflinchingly realistic, showing every single harrowing detail of the gunshot wounds, cuts, and lacerations the team suffer all starkly displayed, kudos must go to the make-up and special effects departments for the excellent work done.
The cinematography is as beautiful as it is brutal, the juxtaposition of the stunning New Mexico landscapes (standing in for Afghanistan) with the violence is brilliant. The scenes with helicopters are particularly beautiful, as we see red smoke and sand billowing out from the down force, creating a morbid combination of beauty and horror.
Lone Survivor is incredibly immersive, sucking the audience in completely . Seeing the sheer number of insurgents spread out over a mountain ridge, I heard whispers of ‘Oh, Fuck’ as the audience realises how deep SEAL Team Ten are in it. The first shot fired, as Marcus sights on a insurgent behind a tree, completely unaware he is in the last few seconds of life, brings the audience in, almost making them complicit in the killing, as we see Luttrell squeeze the trigger, and watch the bullet enter the insurgents head in a violent fashion. The scenes of the SEAL team taking the tumble over the cliffs are savage in there brutality, and I could hear multiple gasps of shock and horror throughout the cinema, as we see exactly how much damage the team went through to survive. These gasps of horror and muttered cursing continued throughout as the film continues, and SEAL Team Tens situation gets more and more desperate. Perhaps the greatest shock was the destruction of a Chinook helicopter with an RPG, unexpectedly taking out the majority of the supporting characters, who form the rescue team – something no one saw coming. Either that, or one scene near the end of the film, where Luttrell is pulling shrapnel from his leg, shown in harrowing realism – that he stays awake throughout the obvious pain is a testament to his mind-over-matter mentality.
What shines through most about each soldier is their brotherhood and professionalism, where the Taliban are firing constantly, the SEALs conserve their ammo, firing only when they have the shot. They constantly check on each other, and do all they can to keep each other alive and safe. One scene in particular, of Axel’s death, demonstrates this – despite taking his last breath, and succumbing to his injuries, it still takes two Taliban fighters a couple of shots before they make the headshot to ensure he is gone.
When the inevitable deaths take place, they are handled with the utmost respect for the real soldiers who lost their lives, without an overly heroic or patriotic overtone, they’re not done for shock, or horror, instead showing the deaths in as realistic a manner as possible. Writer/director Berg had access to the autopsy reports for the real SEAL Team Ten, and uses these to recreate each and every wound the men took. A quick look around the packed theatre showed very few dry eyes as Axe gives his last breath – so deep an emotional connection is forged with the SEAL team it is hard not to feel a pang of sympathy, horror, and pride at their heroism.
Anyone who feels that Mark Wahlberg is a poor actor, needs to see this film. The cast is filled with actors with spotty acting history; Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and Eric Bana to name a few, but your opinion will be changed after watching Lone Survivor, in which each puts in a brilliant, emotional performance. They are SEALs. They embody the men they are playing, utterly convincing. Equally writer/director Berg, who’s most recent films, Hancock and Battleship left a lot to be desired, has redeemed himself with Lone Survivor – there is so little to criticise, as the film is the most realistic recreation of a mission gone sour since Black Hawk Dawn, surpassing both Black Hawk and Saving Private Ryan as one of the greatest war films of the previous decades.
A note on the ending of the film. Following its dedication, to the men of Operation Red Wings, I was expecting the credits to role. Instead Peter Berg pays tribute to those men, with a photo, and where available a video, of each man who died during the operation. As the lights rose following the final stills – of the real Marcus Luttrel, and his son Axe (named for his fallen comrade) and Marcus and Mohammad Gulab, the villager who saved him, the cinema was dead silent. Even walking out to the atrium, it was not till the lobby that people began to talk. I have never seen a film have such an effect on people, moving them to a stunned silence, as they processed the fact that what they had just seen wasn’t fiction, wasn’t solely for their entertainment – instead was a film dedicated to telling the story of real life heroes, whose heroism shouldn’t be forgot. To say this moved the audience is an understatement, looking around there were very few dry eyes in the room, and talking to my friends as we drove home we all agreed we felt the same thing, we had each evaluated our lives and compared to them to these heroes, some of whom died younger than us, and reconsidered what little we’ve done in our lives compared to theirs. There are very few movies that will make you think so deeply.
A lot of people have said how overly jingoistic and pro-US Lone Survivor is. Personally I didn’t see anything overtly patriotic, there is no overblown pomp or circumstance, no saluting the graves of fallen brothers in arms, or long shots of the stars and stripes billowing in the wind. Equally many refer to Lone Survivor as war porn, due to its unflinchingly accurate recreation of the wounds, but again, I disagree – while there is no denying the brutality, Lone Survivor is a far deeper film, a moving story, of brotherhood, heroism, and the inevitable.
Lone Survivor is the best war film I have seen in years, and surpasses Saving Private Ryan as one of the top films of the genre. The skilled acting, flawless direction, great characters, and sheer, brutal, realism prove Lone Survivor is more than just a action film, more than a war film, instead it is a harrowing tale of an operation gone wrong, and a true testament to the bravery of the men involved, a tribute to their heroism. 10/10