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Review: Lone Survivor

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Lone-Survivor

Aptly enough for a movie which backs its central characters into the tightest of tight corners, Lone Survivorfinds its principal players all with something to prove.

Most obviously in the case of writer-director Peter Berg, fresh from the calamity that was Universal’s universally unloved Battleship, but also his leading man, Mark Wahlberg (who, like Berg, serves as one of Lone Survivor’s producers).

Oh sure, the likes of Ted and Pain & Gain might have done nothing to dent the Artist Formerly Known as Marky Mark’s box office bankability. But equally, it feels like a long time since Wahlberg delivered a performance which was anything more than a semi-comatose tour through his shouty, brow-furrowing shtick.

Then there’s Wahlberg’s main co-star, hairy Taylor Kitsch – still seeking to prove himself after last year’s potentially star-making treble of John Carter, the aforementioned Battleship and Oliver Stone’s Savageswas received with all the brotherly love of Nero welcoming a trio of Christians to the imperial palace for a barbecue.

Lone Survivor finds Kitsch playing Lt. Mike Murphy, friend and immediate superior to Wahlberg’s Marcus Luttrell. They, along with colleagues Danny Dietz and Matthew “Axe” Axelson (parts respectively filled by Emile Hirsch and an intense Ben Foster), comprised the real-life SEAL Team 10, which in 2005 was deployed into the Kunar Province close to the Afghan-Pakistan border with the aim of locating Islamist militant Ahmad Shah (a role played in Berg’s movie by Yousuf Azami).

Their mission, codenamed Operation Red Wings, resulted in the deaths of 19 US service personnel (Murphy, Dietz and Axelson plus those on a Chinook downed by rocket-propelled grenade during an attempted rescue). But Luttrell survived, thanks primarily to the intervention of Afghan locals who shielded him from Shah and his men. He subsequently turned his story into a best-seller, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing (sic) and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, and it’s that book on which Berg’s movie is based.

Now, as anyone looking online can quickly learn for themselves, Luttrell’s account of Operation Red Wings is not uncontroversial and neither is the man himself. Though plenty laud him as a hero and inspiration, some question the accuracy of his account.

His fierce and unapologetically pro-military perspective, meanwhile, is as liable to split opinion as a Nicolas Winding Refn movie set in Bangkok. To wit, in a Washington Post interview conducted post-Red Wings but prior to penning his book, Luttrell states that he saw his mission in Afghanistan as being to “kill every SOB we could find” and that it was “payback time for the World Trade Center”. There to win hearts and minds, he was not.

On the other hand, Luttrell admits the kindness shown him by his saviour, Mohammad Gulab (played by Ali Suliman), forced him to rethink his prejudices towards the native populace – and it’s this personal journey which gives Lone Survivor a depth beyond the one-eyed outlook on the Afghan conflict it offers for the opening hour of its runtime.

The son of a marine himself, Berg brings an uncritical eye to the opening scenes of army base ritual and machismo (as part of his research, the director embedded with a Navy SEAL team in Iraq for a month). An early sequence of Shah’s men ruthlessly beheading an enemy cross-cut with the US soldiers querying the meaning of ‘reasonable force’ during wartime underlines his movie’s close identification with those men being asked to do the fighting.

Speaking of fighting… though Lone Survivor was shot in the mountains of New Mexico, some 7,500 miles away from where Luttrell made what he imagined to be his last stand, it’s suffused with a sense of combat reality uncommon to Hollywood action fodder.

The tension as the inexorable fire-fight between the SEAL team and Shah’s militia draws nearer and nearer is simultaneously gnawing and choking, while the shoot out when it arrives is one of the most electrifying seen in American cinema in recent years, recalling the sustained intensity of the bank heist in Michael Mann’s Heat. Though all four main actors contribute manfully to the drama, huge credit must also go to the powerful sound design of Wylie Stateman.

The strength of those scenes and the inherent interest of the events which led to Luttrell’s survival mean it’s only with an enhanced sense of disappointment that the movie’s closing montage elects to unfurl every trick in the Big X-Factor Book of Emotional Manipulation. Earnest as Berg undoubtedly is in his wish to pay tribute to the deceased soldiers, it feels as if he’s suddenly lost faith in the care, intelligence and quality of what he’s given his audience up to that point.

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