Saturday, May 9, 2015

Brutal and Sad: Lone Survivor's Tale of Terror.

Movie Review: Lone Survivor

Director: Peter Berg

Reviewed: 4 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--***

There are one or two moments in Lone Survivor that seem to pull back from its microscopic focus on four Navy Seals trapped in enemy territory on an Afghanistan mountainside, fighting for their lives. It's the home base where troops and back-up are at the ready. Instead of being able to immediately fly to the aid of their trapped comrades, director Peter Berg shows the bureaucracy of the fighting force, where gunships are unable to accompany the Blackhawks to the hot zone to aid the men. The implication is that the US was fighting a deadly war with a force that was stretched too thin, and some of the deadly consequences in this film from the four men to the botched rescue mission are implied rather than overtly stated. It is difficult to make a film honoring these men while simultaneously denigrating the leadership that tried to do this war cheaply. The film made me think of something General Colin Powell said: "War should be the politics of last resort. And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support." I am still not sure that we had that purpose, but the film concretizes the heroic nature of the brutal conditions and violence these Seals were placed within during a time of "last resort," and I think the film successfully captures this firefight in all of its upsetting emotion.

Peter Berg's focus is on the band of brothers, the camaraderie and selflessness of the men in the battle, and it becomes a painful watch. Almost immediately. The title (and history) lets us know what is going to happen, so we become engrossed in the how of it all and the way the situation rapidly spirals out of control. Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster) are dropped into Afghanistan on a covert operation to eliminate a major Taliban leader. The men welcome the opportunity to be useful and put their grueling training to the test, and soon enough, all four men are hidden away on an Afghanistan mountainside, trying to get radio contact amidst the jagged peaks, evading the wandering goat herders who threaten to reveal their position. Berg's filmmaking is at its best when he uses tracking shots in the forest, just showing the meticulous, careful actions of these men before and after it all breaks down. The camera is always clear about what these men want, how they are executing the mission, and after a moral conundrum, how they make the best of a bad situation. Much of the acting is truly action, with faces and eyes becoming important conduits for the storytelling. All four lead performances had an impact on me, with standouts being Kitsch and Foster. It eventually disintegrates into an almost nonverbal silent type of communication with the Seals enduring the worst kinds of hell as they desperately try to get to an extraction point.

A war movie by its nature can be exhilarating, but I found Lone Survivor to be draining. The punishing retreat of these Seals and the bloody disintegration of their fighting force is meant to honor what actually happened, but I cannot help but try to root for the facts to change. The impotence of their force against so many results in it just being jaw-dropping that anyone survived. The film commits to honoring these men and their sacrifice and is at its best when depicting the camaraderie and brotherhood of the four Seals who know that they must put their lives in each others hands. The film is less successful at depicting the village that harbors Luttrell and protects him against the Taliban, content to play with some basic iconography of a near-silent innocent child taking care of him. The rescue scenes offers a bit of a catharsis of sorts for the audience, but overall, Lone Survivor is a sobering film about the war that ends in Berg's choice to elegiacally honor the real-life Seals through photographs set against Peter Gabriel's cover of David Bowie's "Heroes." It is difficult not to wonder what lives these men, all of these men, would have continued to have. What children they would have raised, what husbands, boyfriends, and partners they would have been.

The phrase ultimate sacrifice is not one to be used lightly.

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