Review – Lone Survivor

With Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana. Written by and directed by Peter Berg. Rated R for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language. 121 minutes.

Why do you go to the movies? For many it’s for that most human of reasons, to hear a story. It might be a story that will make us laugh or scare us or bring a tear, it might be realistic or fantastic or cartoonish, but it’s the story that attracts us. Whether it’s to see a reflection of ourselves or see how other people live or simply to escape, there’s a reason the story interests us.

The story of LONE SURVIVOR is all in the title, which may make you wonder what the point of it all is. In 2005, a group of Navy Seals were tasked to go into the mountains of Afghanistan to take out Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami). Writer/director Peter Berg has a feel for how military men on a mission work together, and early on you get caught up in their focus. When they unexpectedly encounter some goat herders, the question is what to do: kill them? hold them prisoner? Let them go? Each choice presents problems, but ultimately they decide to let them go.

There may not have been any good choices, but this proved to be a bad one: their target is tipped off and plans a counterattack. The ensuing story, if it can be called that, is about best-laid plans going astray. Not only do we get extended gun fights that prove costly to both sides, but there is a communications failure that prevents the Seals from getting the assistance they need. Instead we watch as, one by one, the Americans are killed until only Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) is left. Since the movie is based on his book–and given the title–we know he makes it, and so the remainder of the film is what happens to him until he is extracted.

For some this will be a gripping and harrowing experience. If you want to know what fighting in Afghanistan is like without actually risking your life by being there yourself, this film will give you some idea. It captures the chaos and uncertainty of war, particularly this war, where you can’t tell friend from foe, and there are no clear rules of engagement.

For many it will be a frustrating experience. In spite of capturing the realism of a failed mission–and the unquestioned heroism of the men involved–it doesn’t have much to say beyond that. There’s no real point-of-view to the film other than recording the deaths of the Americans and following Luttrell journey through this hellish encounter. Why are we being told this story? It’s never quite clear.

Except for Luttrell, it’s hard to know the other men on the mission, even as they’re played by recognizable actors like Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster. In that sense it’s like “Black Hawk Down” (2001), about another failed mission, where the filmmaker is so caught up in getting the details right that he forgets that there were real people involved. If we don’t have a sense of who these men are, then it’s little more than a video game with lots of action but nothing at stake. Of course, in reality, there was a great deal at stake, but the movie can’t quite get that across.

Even Mark Wahlberg, who has been proving himself a solid actor in both comic and dramatic roles, is two-dimensional. He conveys the fear and anguish and courage of Luttrell, but you’d be hard-pressed to say anything about him other than he survived a failed mission. “Lone Survivor” has a story that is worth telling, but by telling it at arm’s-length, it demonstrates that distancing the viewer was not the best approach.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

11 thoughts on “Review – Lone Survivor

  1. As a combat veteran, I was happy with the way it was shown. They could have gone two directions. One of going into more story of the men itself or keeping the audience at a distance. You have to remember that our service to the country is selfless. We don’t go into combat expecting to be remembered for our actions. We go to accomplish a mission and protect our brothers. I feel this movie did a great way of showing that. The casual civilian viewer may not understand but anyone that has proudly wore the uniform sure does.
    US. Cav

    1. Thank you for your comment and your service. It may well be, as you say, that the film plays differently for civilians.

      1. “You have never lived ’til you’ve almost died. For those who fight for it, life has a flavor the protected will never know.” And this review shows it to be true.

      2. In other words a film intended for mainstream audiences will really only be understood by combat veterans and therefore it succeeds for only that audience. It sounds like you’re agreeing with me that the film falls short.

      3. Mr. Kimmel,
        Nice review, but i’d like to say a few things. (I can see people have touched on this, but bear with me). First, you must read the book. Second, the movie follows the book to a tee. That is the ENTIRE point of the film. It’s not about a broader picture. It’s not about a message. It’s not about the war in Afghanistan. It’s not about character development and getting to know the real people of the Red Wings operation.The entire point of the movie is to follow the exact, detailed specifics of the novel on the account of Marcus Luttrell as he had witnessed it. There is no need for any other point. That being said, it’s difficult to say the movie missed its mark. How can one critique a film tied so closely to a memoir?

        but then again, not everyone has read the book, and not everyone understands the intensity of combat, or anything about the war in Afghanistan. and not everyone can handle a movie that portrays reality. Feed us prostitutes, money, cocaine, yachts and other riches with Jordan Belfort and his stockbroker gang. Why were we being told the story of Belfort? The unquestioned corruption of the men involved, “it doesn’t have much to say beyond that. There’s no real point to the film other than recording the” corrupt lives of stockbrokers. Yet you have given this movie a 5/5? You criticize Lone Survivor for excessive detail without getting to know the people, but WOWS was the most excessive movie ever made, with constant distractions tossed in our faces. To be honest, it sounds to me like you may have a biased opinion of “jingoistic” Peter Berg. Oh well. maybe one day movie critics will look past the glitz and glamor famous directors apply to films

        Have a good day.

      4. Allow me to respond to your thoughtful reply. You hit the nail right on the head. Loyalty to a book is not enough because — with very rare exceptions — most of the audience will NOT have read the book. Nor is it fair to require them to do so as the price of admission. Any defense of a film that begins with “If you had read the book…” fails. I didn’t need the movie to take a political position. I did need something more than “many brave men died on this failed mission.” The title alone told me that. By distancing us from the men they become anonymous figures from an old newscast instead of real people who risked and lost their lives.

        As for “Wolf of Wall Street,” I took the point of the story to be similar to “Goodfellas,” which I referenced in my review: how absolutely seductive the successful criminal life can be. It’s a gangster movie, in which we watch characters living out fantasies of wealth and power most of us will never achieve. Indeed, the whole gangster genre is built on feeding that fantasy and then providing the satisfaction of seeing many (if not all) the characters brought down. Jordan Belfort’s story works because Scorsese shows how hungry he is for success, how he’ll do anything to achieve it, and then how it drives him and those around mad with power and lust.

        It’s not enough for a story to be “real.” As the old expression goes, God writes lousy theater. It needs to engage us at some level beyond saying “and then this happened and then this happened.” For me “Lone Survivor” never got beyond that point.

        Thanks for writing.

  2. As a veteran of multiple combat deployments with one being Afghanistan I am very happy with how the movie was done. The movie gets the story right. It gets so much of what happened right, and it allows civvies a glimpse into what we do. Missions go bad, commo fails, people wind up where they shouldnt be and choices have to be made. Sometimes it costs good people their lives. I find critics focus too much on what they feel should be shown and not what they are shown. There is nothing to read into here. Its all displayed for you. You dont need to understand why the story is being told, other than you are being given the chance to see it told. War is tough and brutal. This movie shows that. It also show the compassion that happens in combat. It shows how warriors endure and carry on through the worst of things. Go back and watch the movie again without the clear bias you had going in the first time. It will help.

    US Army

  3. Did you miss the “Based on a true story” quote? Do you prefer they re-write and dramatize history like the crappy “The Butler” did? The film’s “point” is to show the brotherhood and unconditional devotion of these men to both each other and their country. The “point” is to validate and salute the work of the brave service personnel who are currently being spit on by an ungrateful administration. The “point” is to honor the memories of these selfless men and their families. The “point” is to show what this world is like for those of us who have never been in combat or who have family, friends currently serving and want to understand something we will never experience firsthand. The “point” is to portray an honest picture of a tragic battle that does not adhere to right or left propoganda. It’s NOT a “war movie.” It is a human movie. Get it?

    1. It would have been more human if there were human characters in it, instead of ill-defined figures we learn nothing about. I didn’t need fiction. I needed a sense that these were people. Oh, by the way, while you’re carrying on your political agenda, the film takes place during the Bush Misadministration. You know, the folks who got us into the war in Afghanistan and then ignored it to conduct their war of choice in Iraq.

  4. As I was one those kind of guys (SF vs SEAL) and still periodically work at Coronado, I believe the movie was spot on. FTR I was in Afghanistan in 03 and knew the effort to be a basket case at that point. While they will never understand, I think it important for all audiences to see movies that portray reality.

    1. As with the other veterans who have taken the time to post comments, thank you for your service. The nation cannot do enough to show its gratitude to those who put their lives on the line on its behalf.

      And I agree that it’s important for civilians — such as myself — to try to understand the reality of war. My complaint is that by failing to engage the viewer, the movie is a missed opportunity. If you want to see an interesting film that puts the viewer into the situation, track down a Vietnam era film called “84 Charlie Mopic.”

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