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.•••
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.