November 13, 2013

AFI FEST Film Review: “Lone Survivor”


LONE SURVIVOR:  Buy A Ticket – A Powerfully Visceral Tale of War

Peter Berg’s LONE SURVIVOR, which was shown at the AFI Film Festival tonight in advance of its release late next month, is a docudrama in the truest sense:  based on the memoir by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, it exists with one aim in mind, which is to document the story of Luttrell and his comrades on their ill-fated 2005 mission in Afghanistan.  Berg, after doing some time in the big-budget Hollywood wilderness of Hancock and Battleship, delivers a lean, stripped-down, brutally convincing story of warfare.  

To the extent its title already doesn’t, the trailer for Lone Survivor “gives away” any narrative secrets of the story:  Luttrell (played in the film by Marc Wahlberg) and a team of three other SEALs, Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster), were tasked with eliminating a regional Taliban chieftain, and deposited on a hill overlooking the warlord’s town.  Before they could finish their mission, they encountered a group of three herdsmen, including a child, who were unarmed but clearly in contact with the Taliban.  Following their rules of engagement, the soldiers chose to let the captives go and abort their mission, but their radio and satellite communications failed before they could contact their base for extraction, and they were hunted down by the Afghan fighters.  Over the course of a day, they were shot to pieces.

Berg’s film, which he adapted from Luttrell’s book himself as well as directing, seemingly spares no detail of what befell the SEALs, as well as the soldiers who were initially sent to rescue them.  Lone Survivor has no larger political points to make about the war in Afghanistan or, beyond praising the heroism of its protagonists, about war in general (except in the sense that by maintaining the point of view of the Americans throughout, by default he adopts their sense of the situation).  Berg has devoted himself to providing, within the limitations of conventional moviemaking, an accurate replica of the minute-to-minute experience of being on that hill with those soldiers, and he’s done so admirably.  Working with cinematographer Tobias A. Schliesser and editor Colby Parker Jr., and with a mostly spare score by Explosions In the Sky (who memorably scored Berg’s Friday Night Lights film and TV series) and Steve Jablonsky, Berg rarely tries to be splashy or self-consciously cinematic, sticking effectively to the bare ugly facts of the story (although the final reel telescopes actual events in a way that’s somewhat more “Hollywood” than what’s come before).

This approach is both a success and a limitation.  Although Wahlberg and the other actors are convincing both as soldiers and colleagues, with the kind of semi-improvisational feel in their casual dialogue that Berg used so well in Friday Night Lights, they’re also somewhat generic as characters, with little attempt to develop them as individuals beyond a nod to basic circumstances (one of the soldiers is planning to get married, another is a newbie undergoing light hazing, etc).  This is the time of year where we compare one good movie to another, and Lone Survivor doesn’t offer the deeper satisfactions of a real-life drama like Captain Phillips, both in terms of the directing pyrotechnics of Paul Greenglass’s film and because Greenglass and his writer Billy Ray shaped their story so that it had something to say about Phillips, the pirates, and the world events that had brought them together so horribly.  (Wahlberg, too, for all the intensity of his performance, never has the chance to fully illuminate Luttrell in the way that the final section of Captain Phillips does for Tom Hanks.)

Lone Survivor, in the way of its SEAL protagonists, is spare and focused.  The grim result is powerful; we’ve gotten so used to superhuman, unkillable movie action heroes who outrun explosions and survive seemingly fatal injuries that watching good guys not only bleed but suffer, unable to bounce back from awful wounds, is unfamiliar territory.  Any ideas we may take from it all, however, are left for us to decide.  For Berg, this is clearly a passion project–an unusually long sequence before the end credits provides a roll call of Luttrell and the men who didn’t make it out–and he’s accomplished his mission of depicting the events that transpired in those fateful days.  One might wish that he’d brought the material to another, more artful level, but that wasn’t in the rules of engagement that he undertook for himself.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."