By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — This unsparing biographical action drama chronicles a sad, tragic recent chapter in US Navy Seals history.
Lone Survivor is a muscular combat flick based on Marcus Luttrell’s best-selling 2009 memoir about his Navy Seal unit’s grave 2005 battle with Taliban warriors in northern Afghanistan following a botched raid -– a failed covert mission known as Operation Red Wings — for the purpose of capturing or killing Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd, who killed a number of marines the week before.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Luttrell, while Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch play the other three Navy Seals –- Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz, and Matt Axelson respectively — who are dropped by helicopter onto a life-threateningly steep rocky mountainside.
Eric Bana plays the lieutenant in charge of the mission but removed from it as well.
However, their mission is compromised when a goat herder and two children come upon them.
The Seals capture them and then have to make the film’s key moral judgment and military decision: should they take out these unarmed civilians to protect themselves from detection or let them go, knowing they will probably alert the Taliban to their whereabouts?
They opt for the latter on moral grounds and they are soon surrounded by enemy soldiers who severely outnumber them through the ensuing, sustained firefight.
In other words, they don’t have a chance.
Writer and director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom, Hancock, Battleship, The Rundown) drops us off along with the brave, endangered foursome. We’re being issued a fact-based procedural in the opening reels, but because Berg eventually immerses us in the soldiers’ unthinkable undertaking, and hits us with the full force of the danger, the pain, the wounds, the injuries, and the deaths, the film takes on surprising emotional power, despite the fact that the title alone robs the saga of a good deal of its surface suspense.
But the inspired dedication to excruciating combat authenticity makes the film seem at times like a feature-length companion piece to the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan, which remains the standard.
This is neither an actors’ movie nor a screenwriter’s movie: it’s a director’s movie. The performers don’t get to strut and the script doesn’t aim for depth in characterization.
But Berg’s cast gives him and us what we need, which is to get to know these guys just well enough to feel for them when the inevitable occurs.
So we’ll struggle against 3 stars out of 4. As an eloquent tribute to a group of fallen heroes, Lone Survivor is an honorable, intense, rugged, and grim movie portrait of valor and dedication and solidarity and sacrifice.