Review: Lone Survivor (2014)

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Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriter: Peter Berg
Based on Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, a nonfiction book by Marcus Lutttrell & Patrick Robinson
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Yousuf Azami, Ali Suliman & Alexander Ludwig
Runtime: 121 min // Certificate: 15


It’s terribly hard to invest in a main character when he’s being played by charisma vacuum Mark Wahlberg, yet this is the task that Lone Survivor sets for us and, as such, we must do our utmost to at least give it a chance. Based on a rather harrowing true story, which I’ll attempt to dissect in more detail momentarily, Peter Berg’s film feels like a bizarre combination of wartime propaganda and jingoistic, eighties-esque action nonsense, albeit one that at least tries to explore the moral conflicts that drive the drama. It is a messy film that thrives on a crude appeal to certain militaristic values, though in fairness it’s also surprisingly restrained in its approach to certain issues. Alas, what this means is that the biggest issue isn’t the overbearing patriotism but the sheer aimlessness of the enterprise.

Lone Survivor attempts to recreate the tragic circumstances of Operation Red Wings, a disastrous military operation in which multiple US Seals lost their lives in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan. Marcus Luttrell, the “lone survivor” (spoiler alert…) of the operation – played by Mark Wahlberg – subsequently recovered from his horrific near-death experience and wrote the book upon which this film is based. The purpose of ORW was to dismantle local Taliban activity operating in the region, which was being orchestrated by Ahmad Shah (Azami). Poor communications, a seemingly rushed preparation procedure and an unpredictable Taliban attack led to a shambolic operation which saw 19 Americans killed and 1 – Luttrell – seriously injured, both physically and psychologically.

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The main problem with films like this is they invariably turn out to be Eisenstein-esque in their approach to major issues. Lone Survivor suffers from the same issues as Zero Dark Thirty in that whilst its “black vs. white” approach might well be accurate, it doesn’t make for interesting storytelling. One side is taken over the other from the off, in which it’s good guys vs. bad guys, and though it’s obviously pretty damn hard to humanise / sympathise with the villain of the piece when said villain is the Taliban, it makes for a film that lacks much real conflict outside of basic warfare. The battles of wits and ideologies that make the best war films so enjoyable cannot exist here because it’s so obvious who the heroes are. Berate America all you wish; slam imperialism, oppose the intervention and demand Bush be taken to the Hague till the cows come home but, when push comes to shove, in the fight between the Seals and the Taliban you can take only one side…

Alas, even without this issue, Lone Survivor is still a painful film. Where moral conflicts are discussed, they’re quite literally discussed. For example, when Luttrell and his three “brothers” (fellow soldiers) encounter two Afghans on the outskirts of the village they’re targeting, a debate about what to do with / to them ensues. The moral dilemma is turned into a literal debate, in which nuance is abandoned and every possibility is given some airtime. To kill or not to kill, that is the question, and boy oh boy do we get the answer drilled into us. All that was absent from that scene was a moderator to keep the peace. On the one side we have nice, moral Luttrell who sees no benefit in pointless execution. On the other we have his practical but brutal mates, two of whom seem to think it’s better to be safe than sorry. The debate wages on, differences are settled and then the film moves on, never to speak of this moral dilemma again. It’s so heavy-handed, not to mention so obviously shoe-horned in to attempt to appeal to a certain political base, that it fails its purpose completely. I know this is based on a true story and I know people lost their lives but Berg’s approach to difficult questions is so lackadaisical that one can’t help but laugh.

And therein lays the crux of the problem; Lone Survivor is just a shoddy and uninspiring film. Its appeal is lost on me as it is, for I can’t stomach such flagrant displays of patriotism and nationalism at the best of times, yet the appeal to the more militaristic base must be lost too, surely? Berg’s film does a disservice to the trauma that Luttrell undoubtedly suffered by being written in such a childish way. The characters are, with the possible exception of Luttrell, one-dimensional, the plot is all over the place (we get no real indication as to why the mission was such a monumental car crash, which is arguably a far more interesting story) and the performances range from weak to laughable. If you want me to invest in this true story, you have to do more than just tell me that it’s a true story. If I’m paying to see your film, you have to make the story engaging, irrespective of whether or not it’s grounded in reality.

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Now, in Peter Berg’s defence, he does get one or two things right. Firstly, the action sequence that lasts for about 20 minutes in the forest is exhilarating, and though he ladles on the melodrama in an almost sickly fashion, he does his best to wring every emotion out of the death sequences. As the film enters its final act, Berg cranks up the tension that little bit further, resulting in a finale that is thrilling on a basic but enjoyable level, although by this point the film has long given up the pretence of trying to get to the heart of what happened. In fact, Lone Survivor is perhaps at its best when it just descends into action-heavy anarchy because at least it means none of the characters are speaking…

What we have with Lone Survivor is a film that wants to exist purely on pro-Americanism. Berg’s style of storytelling is so bland, so uninteresting and so wholly uninspiring that he singularly fails to capture the real horror that Luttrell will have undoubtedly experienced. It’s all painful, generic, “USA! USA!” nonsense that undermines the actual tale of a man who survived in the face of all but insurmountable odds. With a ludicrous runtime (it takes two hours to tell a one-hour story), a gorgonzola laden script and some dreadful performances, Lone Survivor is everything I expected it to be and less. Perhaps someday somebody will tell Luttrell’s tale with a bit more passion and subtlety, rather than the in-your-face bluntness of Peter Berg. Until then though, this is all we have and, well… it’s pretty damn bad, all things considered.