'Lone Survivor' brutal, unrelenting and ultimately moving
05:00 AM, Dec 24, 2013
Lone Survivor isn’t your standard Christmas fare, but the story is nothing short of miraculous.
Brutal, unrelenting and ultimately moving, this true story (*** out of four, rated R, limited opening Dec. 25) of a botched Navy SEAL raid in Afghanistan can get jingoistic and is too fixated on graphic violence. Still, director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Battleship) goes into terrific detail about the 2005 mission that went horribly awry, one ultimately undone by goat herders and American mercy.
Like 2001’s Oscar-winning Black Hawk Down, another adaptation from a true military book, history and title give Survivor’s ending away. But both films utilize such frenetic action and military savvy that the fate of the mission becomes secondary to the extraordinary details of it.
Based on Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s 2005 memoir by the same title, Survivor spends little time on the backstory of the soldiers of Operation Red Wings, the mission to take out Afghanistan militant Ahmad Shah that resulted in the deaths of 19 soldiers.
While Survivor’s SEALs aren’t super soldiers, they’re fearless. We meet a quartet of soldiers in Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Lt. Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) and Petty Officers 2nd Class Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster). Under cover of darkness, they hole up near a secluded village to target Shah, a suspected Taliban fighter.
Soon, however, the mission goes off the rails as the soldiers come across a group of goat herders. After questioning them, the SEALs release the men, who immediately notify Afghanistan militants who descend on the soldiers within hours.
Once far from some of the hoo-rah dialogue and golden-hued images of men reminiscing about their best girls back home, Survivor is a pummeling, frenzied ride, one of fall’s most charged action films. The gunfights and rocket-propelled grenades are palpable, and Berg manages to make the chaos followable.
Be warned: Survivor is hard to watch. Berg spends too long on two perilous falls down the Afghanistan mountainside that shatter bones and shred skin. And the extended scene of Luttrell operating on his leg with an unwashed blade feels like overkill to get an R rating.
But there’s no denying the grit of the soldiers, and the unexpected (and true) gesture by friendly Afghanistan villagers gives Survivor surprising heart. Survivor is bloody, violent and not for the meek. But if Christmas stories are, ultimately, stories of sacrifice and honor, then Berg’s mission is a success.