Movie review: 'Lone Survivor' paints an honest, even portrait

This photo released by Universal Pictures shows, from left, Taylor Kitsch, as Michael Murphy, Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell, Ben Foster as Matt "Axe" Axelson, and Emile Hirsch as Danny Dietz in a scene from the film, "Lone Survivor." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)

“Lone Survivor”


Universal Pictures

2 hours, 1 minute


Seeing trailers or posters for this week’s “Lone Survivor,” you might be tempted to dismiss it as one of any number of Mark Wahlberg throw-away action movies. Don’t get me wrong, the best kind of throw-away action movies are Mark Wahlberg throw-away action movies. “Shooter” is one of my favorites, and, artistically and thematically, it’s nothing to write home about.

“Lone Survivor,” however, is different. This is a true story, or at least as true as Hollywood gets, and a surprisingly honest, even portrait of a group of men who have been both lionized and lambasted with equal fervor: the Navy SEALs.

Wahlberg plays titular lone survivor Marcus Luttrell who, in the opening scenes of the film, is being airlifted to a base hospital where doctors and nurses scramble to save his life. The title and the manner in which screenwriter/director Peter Berg chooses to open the film leave no room for doubt about what’s going to happen in the narrative to come. Spoiler alerts are not necessary. Marcus Luttrell is the only survivor of a failed 2005 mission to take down one of the key leaders of the Taliban at a remote mountain village in Afghanistan. Knowing that ahead of time lends a particular poignancy to the care taken to establish the characters of Luttrell’s three team members, Danny Dietz, Michael Murphy, and Matt “Axe” Axelson.

The film flashes back three days, to the beginning of the mission, and we follow it, step by step as it is planned, executed, and ultimately bungled — though not by anything as cliche as human greed, incompetence, or even apathy, but as a result of simple bad luck.

The film’s turning point arrives when Luttrell, Dietz, Murphy, and Axe are under cover, observing the remote village where their target has been hiding. High up the side of a mountain, the team is to identify the target and then call in the cavalry. Unfortunately, at exactly the wrong moment, a trio of goatherds — an old man, a surly teen, and a young boy, happen upon the SEALs’ lookout point, throwing the entire mission into disarray.

What follows is a scene that nicely encapsulates the point Berg and Co., are trying to make in this film. Being a SEAL, or in fact, any soldier in a war zone, is very difficult. This may seem like a fairly obvious point, but aside from the brutal training and all the cliche macho bluster that is tossed around about the Special Forces, the encounter with the goatherds reveals how emotionally and morally taxing this kind of work can be. What is to be done? The movie lays out with measured and reasoned arguments the rationale for either killing the three, tying them up and leaving them, or simply letting them go. You’ve seen scenes like this in other, lesser movies many times, but usually there’s an obvious uncaring jerk in the group, a sterling do-gooder, and a cruel pragmatist. Not so here, because this is, or was, a real situation, that really had to be dealt with, and every option had consequences. I won’t tell you what they decided, but you can guess that the consequences were not in the favor of our four heroes.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this film is that it is determinedly apolitical. I wouldn’t say it’s balanced film, at least not in terms of Americans versus Taliban. This isn’t a Paul Greengrass film where we follow the little Taliban boy home and see what life is like in his hut and watch his father kiss his mother before riding off to be killed the next day. This movie definitely has good guys and bad guys and the bad guys are pretty bad, managing to behead one poor sucker before you have time to get half-way through your popcorn.

But from the perspective of the Americans, it takes no particular stance. This isn’t a movie that the left will champion as criticizing America’s colonialist policies in the Middle East, nor will the right be able to hold it up as a testament to the power and moral certitude of the U.S. military. Berg instead tells the tale of four guys who get in a really nasty situation and how one guy makes it out alive.

The film “Lone Survivor” most reminds me of is the excellent “Black Hawk Down.” However, where that film had so many soldiers and so many moving parts and such a complicated path to follow, “Survivor” is more intimate and simple, relying on good writing and the strength of these four young actors to pull it off. Wahlberg is very good, but really the least interesting character. As Dietz, I very much enjoyed Emile Hirsch, an actor whose slight wispiness works in his favor. Also good, almost surprisingly so, is Taylor Kitsch, who had a really bad year last year, but redeems himself with a very nice performance as Murphy. Best of all, however, is the quietly intense Ben Foster as Axe. Foster does not always choose the best projects, but he is always interesting.

“Lone Survivor” manages to be a good popcorn flick and a powerful war movie without ever devolving into the inherent traps both of those designations imply. It’s not shallow, and nor is it either jingoistic or unpatriotic. It eases through that minefield and manages to come away, unlike its unfortunate subjects, almost unscathed.

Grade: A-

“Lone Survivor” is rated R for bloody war violence, some gore, and pervasive language.


Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.