Monday, January 13, 2014

Lone Survivor / ***½ (R)

Marcus Luttrell: Mark Wahlberg
Michael Murphy: Taylor Kitsch
Danny Dietz: Emile Hirsch
Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson: Ben Foster
Shah: Yousuf Azami
Gulab: Ali Suliman
Erik Kristensen: Eric Bana
Shane Patton: Alexander Ludwig

Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Peter Berg. Based on the book “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10” by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson. Running time: 121 min. Rated R (for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language).

As I walked into the theater to see “Lone Survivor”, the true story of what happened to Seal Team 10 on an Afghanistan mission that went wrong, the theater’s owner told me I needed to be thankful for what the men depicted in the film have sacrificed for our country. I am. This resonated again with me yesterday evening as I watched The Golden Globe Awards, one of a half a dozen awards shows you see throughout the year where the stars of Hollywood come out and praise each other for the great work they’ve done. Two things struck me about the relation of this film and these Hollywood award events. One is that, although during a show like the Golden Globes it may appear as if the people involved with filmmaking do it for the glory, they really aren’t in it for any more glory than the soldiers who give their lives in the name of freedom. Two is that without this Hollywood glitz and glamour—this PR machine that is designed more to sell the movies involved than to truly honor the work of making them—we’d never know much about the fate of Seal Team 10.

I think the U.S. military understands the methods of Hollywood better than the American public. In an interview on The Tonight Show last week, this film’s star, Mark Wahlberg, revealed that the character he plays did not want to tell his story in the book upon which the film is based. It was the U.S. military that urged him to write the book so his story could be known to the American public. I wonder if the movie deal was already in place. Either way, it was a brilliant move considering our war in Afghanistan is not much understood here in the states. Soldiers and the work they do are too often used as talking points in political debates, and only through artistic endeavors like this and many other movies do we truly try to understand their place in the way our world operates. “Lone Survivor” is an invaluable tool put to this end.

The movie tells the story of Operation Red Wings, which was executed in June of 2005. Seal Team 10 is ordered to capture or kill a high-ranking Taliban leader thought to be in a small mountain village. An elaborate plan is devised to carry out their mission with a four man scouting team sent in to make a positive ID before pulling in the rest of the team. These men are Marcus Luttrell, Danny Dietz, Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson and the team leader Michael Murphy.

A family of goat herders, consisting of an old man and two children, discovers the four men as they hide out in the mountains above the village. The old man has with him a communication device, likely issued by the Taliban. Without being able to contact their superiors due to the mountainous terrain playing havoc with their communication systems, the four men have to decide among themselves what to do with these people who will clearly give their location up to the Taliban if they let them go. After a vote, Murphy decides to uphold the Rules of Engagement set forth by the Geneva Convention, and he lets the shepherds go. Within an hour, Taliban forces surround them. The mission has become one of survival.

Writer/director Peter Berg takes Luttrell’s cue from the first chapters of the book and places a great deal of emphasis on the bond of brotherhood shared by the soldiers. The opening credits show photographs and footage of real Seal training and depicts the camaraderie built up between the men in the process. He then gives us much more background on these four men than is usually found in a war film, which have a tendency to concentrate more heavily on the procedures of war. Much is made about the personal lives that are waiting for these men back in the States.

The procedure is there as well, as Berg takes us through every aspect of the prep for the operation. Axe notes that there are “a lot of moving parts.” The details of the scout team’s insertion and the way they check in with their base of operations are made clear, so we know that every decision is made through the chain of command. When they are discovered and can’t communicate through the chain of command, we realize the predicaments of war that often defy the black and white nature of the Rules of Engagement. Like brothers they disagree, by they work to what they feel is the best solution. Berg expertly lays out all this for the audience to discern.

The action sequences that depict the team’s fight for survival against what can be referred to as insurmountable odds are incredibly intense. To call these men as tough as they come would be putting it in the most mild of terms. Their struggle amounts to one of those audience experiences where you find yourself tearing at your own hair, squirming in your seat and uttering guttural sounds as you try to take some of the damage these men are enduring as partially your own.

Now, I don’t want to spoil anything for anybody, and yet somehow I’m sure there is someone out there who will find what I want to deal with next as a spoiler despite the film’s title; but eventually, Luttrell is the only one of the four men left. While the humanity and brotherhood of these men is the film’s focal point, what happens next might be the primary reason the military wanted this story told. Luttrell is rescued and hidden away by an Afghan from the very village in which the Taliban leader was hiding. The man protects Luttrell out of an Afghanistan belief called Pashtunwali, which dictates that an honorable man must defend and protect the weak and grant asylum to one from his enemies. This humanity in the Afghan people is what is truly important to the military about our fight in Afghanistan. Berg wants us to know we are not sending our soldiers there to a people who don’t appreciate us, as the media coverage often implies.

While there are a couple of moments that seem a little too Hollywoodized here, like one shot of the men jumping from a cliff that looks staged and some of Wahlberg’s desperate dialogue when he’s first hidden away in the village, this is a first class account of the heroism displayed by our soldiers and the people we are trying to liberate from the oppressive practices of the Taliban. I would never deign to imply that those actors celebrating each other at all those awards shows has anything to do with what our troops do for us, but there is a bond held by both groups. The camaraderie of brotherhood is what allows our military forces to do what they do. A similar camaraderie is what allows those actors to accept those awards for doing their jobs. When that Hollywood camaraderie is put forth to produce a film like “Lone Survivor”, that makes it all that much easier for the public to realize everything the men on the battlefield do for us. 


Dan O. said...

Nice review Andrew. Berg may not always be my favorite director out there, but he shows that he can shoot an action-scene and make it as brutal and raw as they come.

Andrew Wells said...

Yeah. Berg doesn't often impress me either. Probably this one and Friday Night Lights (the movie, I couldn't sit through the TV series) are his two best efforts.