Monday, January 27, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW Lone Survivor
Going The Distance No Matter The Cost

Mark Wahlberg as Navy SEAL Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell in Peter Berg's war drama "Lone Survivor". 


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, January 27, 2014

Peter Berg's "Lone Survivor", an true-life action drama about a 2005 U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Afghanistan to capture a wanted operative in the Taliban, scores many points for its crunching, visceral atmosphere and camerawork.  Navy Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) leads an elite unit into the mountains of Afghanistan and are soon moored by dilemma and morality.  Afghan farmers accost the team, who after interrogating them, lets the farmers go.  Other Afghans will return.

"Lone Survivor" is bookended by tributes to the actual SEALS who fought and died in the raid, and while those tributes look heartfelt and genuine the action in between, the inherently romanticized specter of war and battle that pulsates throughout Mr. Berg's film makes those tributes feel pretentious and overwrought.  The cinematic story and the actual video are a juxtaposition that is as uncomfortable as the film's war violence is to experience. 

The title of the film is not its problem nor does it "spoil" the story.  The objective of "Lone Survivor" isn't in us knowing in advance that Mr. Luttrell made it through an impossible hell.  Rather, Mr. Berg's film is about measuring acts of courage under fire.  Luttrell performs his duties rigorously and unsentimentally, exactly the way you'd expect.  Some of his moral judgments and actions prove right.  Some do not.  An Afghan villager who comes to Luttrell's aid also has to stay true to his code of honor.  These acts of loyalty and humanity in the face of life and death are a central purpose of "Lone Survivor" but are drowned in self-reverential hagiography and glorying of death.

The theater of war doesn't allow for nuance.  It's kill or be killed.  There's a vitriolic us-versus-them mentality -- one essential for executing on the battlefield -- and Mr. Berg stacks the deck in that manner.  The Taliban, which received aid from the U.S. just four months before 9/11/2001, is the bad guy here, and the world's sole superpower pristine.  Some of the imagery and tenor of "Lone Survivor" recalls Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" and the infomercial movie "Act Of Valor" in its lack of context and abundance of simplistic, cardboard surface. 

In truth though, none of these films have to be "balanced" -- documentaries themselves aren't.  "Lone Survivor" doesn't claim or endeavor to be even-handed (where "Act Of Valor" was far less disguised.)  The film is based on Mr. Luttrell's book with Patrick Robinson, and obviously from Mr. Luttrell's vantage point, which is up close and personal.  You can't escape those perilous, agonizing and bone-breaking falls down steep mountains.  The sound effects and cinematography of these sequences are very effective, especially strong and bracing.

I don't believe "Lone Survivor" revs up war for its own fetishist sake, even though there's an irritating, insistent drumbeat of propagandistic and manipulative grandeur about its rhythm that boiled my blood.  The film's second hour is my biggest problem with "Lone Survivor" -- its scale and scope is reduced to the slow-motion expiration of SEALS without any sense of purpose or context other than exalted remembrance. 

The issue is, how does one best pay tribute to heroic SEALS?  Assuming they are heroic (and that is open for debate within the context of what Mr. Berg's film shows), how does one define what heroism is in a theater of war?  The questions are worthwhile if not problematic.  Both questions aren't sufficiently addressed by Mr. Berg, a filmmaker effective at cultivating heart-pounding visuals, exhortations ("Friday Night Lights"), viscera ("The Kingdom") and bombastic pageantry and patriotism ("Battleship").  Somehow I didn't really feel that I knew any of the SEALS despite the tributes to them, and that fault lies with Mr. Berg.

In war there may well be a difference between bravery and heroism.  There's little doubt that on June 28, 2005 Mr. Luttrell and his fellow SEALS bravely sacrificed for their country.  In "Lone Survivor" Mr. Berg seems to play heroism for bravery, and Mr. Wahlberg's performance, blunt and ruggedly matter-of-fact on a bloody, highly authentic battlefield, works appropriately for the terrain he operates on.  Yet there's little context beyond the raw power and potency of the film's graphic engagement, which in the end, is all these men have, aside from each other.  Lack of imagination, however, is not necessarily suitable for cinema's sake.

Also with: Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig, Jerry Ferrara.

"Lone Survivor" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language.  The film's running time is two hours and one minute. 

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