Moview Review: Lone Survivor- An Authentically Brutal and Nonpartisan Portrayal of the Wartime Experience Told Through Peter Berg’s Respectful Direction and Honest Screenplay

la_ca_1108_lone_survivorAn undeniable aspect of war, whether or not you make rationalizations on its regrettable purpose or demonize its existence entirely, is that it’s an utter hell that tries the mentality and physicality of the courageous men and women who fight in the conflict. Most war films have captured the hellish and nonsensical brutality of war through challenging cinematic portraits, either through the allegorical heart of darkness showcased in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now,  the apathetic political influences in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, and even in cinema’s first triumphant reflections with the adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front. But while all wars impact people there aren’t enough films that showcase true examples of wartime heroism which neglects a chance to embrace the humanity in the soldiers who are put into these tumultuous and life threatening circumstances. This is where Peter Berg’s ominously titled latest film Lone Survivor differs from the a vast majority of the war film experience because rather than postulating on the reasons or criticisms for war it only seeks to depict the strong links of brotherhood involved in our armed forces ranks through an effective nonpartisan slant. Returning to his attention to detail roots showcased in The Kingdom and leaving behind an unfortunate deviation into the ridiculous with Battleship, Berg has concocted a relatively solid film in Lone Survivor that follows the real life events that happened in 2005 to Navy SEAL Mark Luttrell and his team in the Afghanistan Mountains when a secret operation is compromised. Though the film could have had deeper character development and interaction in the first quarter of the film, an aspect that slightly detriments the overall impact of the picture, its solid and intimate middle core of brutally authentic wartime conflict captured in real time is a technically astounding, emotionally engaging, and definite pulse pounding experience. To the film’s creative credit in staying true to the events that transpired it demonstrates that the relentless pummeling of war doesn’t always come with the Hollywood convention that is graceful relief giving the film a true experience of modern warfare. Lone Survivor might have its storytelling flaws, mainly due to a conventional structure and some fairly assumed character involvement, but when it erupts into the focused intimacy of soldier bonding amidst the chaotic brutality of battle in the middle of the film it becomes a relatively involving homage to the relentless dedication of spirit within our soldiers.

Passion can often lead to a positive translation of emotionality and authenticity ingrained in a chosen subject and for the most part Peter Berg’s resonating respect for the American Armed Forces guides his penned screenplay into an arena of believable and brutal portrayals of the numerous human struggles within war. As the opening credits role we’re given a warming montage of honest living Navy SEALs undergoing the physically strenuous training and brotherly bonding exercises that certainly gives us a clear picture of how difficult it is to undergo the disciplinary rigors and physically challenging aspects of being a soldier. If only Berg had focused on giving his fictional interpretations of the leading Navy SEALs more depth than the quickly assumed sympathies linked to them for being soldiers then the impact of the entire film would have been dramatically amplified in an incredibly rewarding manner. Lone Survivor follows the four Navy SEALs who took on an epic underdog gunfight against the Taliban when a secret operation in the Afghanistan Mountains in an attempt to take out Taliban leader Ahmed Shahd (Yousef Azami) is compromised leaving them without communication and only each other to survive. The four characters include fictional depictions of actual SEAL team members Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Matt Axelson (Ben Foster), and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and they are painted with a thin character brush by Berg in his script who clearly assumes that an American uniform alone equates reason enough to care. Luckily it’s a fairly good assumption that is aided with the opening montages focus on the brotherhood of soldiers and it gives us investment enough that once the actual fighting blazes we feel every bone crushing impact and fret every sizzling bullet that comes their way. As a humanist portrait of the American soldier Berg’s script almost has a completely focused portrayal as it puts us into the soldier’s mindset both ethically, mentally, and physically as the script sets up scenes for the characters arguing amongst each other to address utilitarian war issues and then follows it up with the physical consequences of those ethical choices. Berg’s script might not have a completely furnished opening setting up the complexities or reasons for the operation but in his nonpartisan focus on the experience of the soldiers it is an immensely accurate if not fully involving experience that he accentuates with his ability to direct pulse pounding action sequences.

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Peter Berg’s directing career has never been an impeccable one considering his flair for engaging action has always taken precedent over the more dramatic constructs or intriguing plot developments that could have existed in his work, either in the fairly humorous action movie The Rundown or the disappointingly delivered superhero concept film Hancock. With Lone Survivor it seems Berg has found a subject that blends his rather once off success in the dramatic region of cinema with Friday Night Lights with his affinity for engaging action creating a solid soldier experience film that almost makes up for his sinful involvement in the creation of the Hasbro inspired film Battleship. The respectful look he takes on the life of our soldiers either in the their base downtime or their unbreakable determination in the face of unbeatable odds is delivered rather elegantly through a carefully detailed approach that highlights Berg’s clear passion for the subject. Regular Berg cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler captures the base bonding of soldiers with steady and clear imagery while transitioning well into the chaotic imagery of battle that suits the film’s duel focus on everything that encompasses the soldier’s experience. Accompanied with intensely detailed editing from another regular Berg collaborator Coby Parker Jr., Lone Survivor mixes intimate bonding with exceptional tension building sequences that Berg has carefully planned out through detailed direction. Planning out the core battle sequence in the middle of the film so that it was to be delivered in real time turns out to be the best creative decision in Berg’s cinematic career because it gives the experience an unrelenting sense of tension and an involving sense of chaos opening our understanding of the physical brutality and mental exhaustion that comes from being in battle. While there is an uneven pacing for the film as a whole, mostly due to the assumed character involvement in the beginning of the film and the somewhat conventional ending, the incredibly strong middle makes it a worthy cinema experience that delivers some truly memorable wartime action on par with Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket. Those who fear that this nonpartisan portrait of the American soldier might come off as blindingly patriotic should take heed that Berg wishes to show the authentic experience without judgment and doesn’t demonize their efforts or their enemies since he shows the soldiers in their element and even shows that not all Afghanistan people are the enemy. Berg’s careful action planning coupled with his keen sense of cinematic flair is what gives Lone Survivor a hard push into the realm of dramatic involvement and allows the actors in the middle of it to shine in select and intriguing ways.

The acting challenge within Lone Survivor is the difficulty in balancing soldiers who possess on one side the fullness of being grounded human beings with fears, desires, and obligations and on the other side their equally prevalent qualities in being fearless, determined, and undeterred from the task at hand. For the most part this stated dichotomy held in the human portrait of the soldier’s life is successfully portrayed within the film mostly because of the experienced talents that command the screen with physicality and firm connection. While it’s a tad unfortunate that the multitude of the cast isn’t as multicultural as the actual team and command that’s showcased in the final credits their talents as actors can’t ever be in question, especially from the two highlighted performances from Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster. It’s not as though Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch aren’t stand out performances because they work effectively as part of the team and are given their emotional moments in the midst of battle, but rather it’s that Wahlberg and Foster represent two extreme parts of a whole especially in the heat of their ethical dilemma proposed to them early on in the film. Together they showcase the physical hardships and dedication of spirit held within our military men and women but they also bring a thought provoking representation of what ethical questions are asked, debated, and concluded if the unexpected is presented. Wahlberg has demonstrated throughout his career that he can give an everyman persona to larger than life characters but in Lone Survivor he is able to use that charisma in representing the heart, drive, and perseverance of the military in an effortless fashion. Ben Foster has quickly become one of our most cherished, adaptable actors giving complexity to his roles in 3:10 to Yuma, The Messenger, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and continues that tradition here complimenting Wahlberg by igniting the screen with brotherly dedication, familial hope, and ethical ambiguity. Because each of these actors possess the ability to be understated and know when to selectively show their vulnerability they are able to give our soldiers a proper humanist touch that couldn’t have been done without their own respect for the troops and Peter Berg’s tactful direction.

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Too often than not our war films focus on the impact war has on society as a whole or the political influences that guide it without paying much attention to the ethically confronted and physically challenged humans who are on the frontlines. The symptoms of war and their aftereffects are deserving of reflection and criticism but there always seemed to be a missing piece of the war portrait in the humanly qualities of our soldiers, which Peter Berg has created with only minor flaws. Berg’s strengths rest in the all too typical action aspects of the war film and though the crafted middle battle of Lone Survivor is gripping in its tenuous buildup and nail-biting real time delivery there still was some lacking development early on for his characters to be truly molded and felt characters instead of fairly grounded representations of soldiers. While it’s easy to nitpick the clear faults of a director who spends his creative efforts mostly trapped in the typical delivery of action it should be noted that Lone Survivor emerges as an engaging and emotional wartime action film mostly because Berg has found a passion for the subject and properly utilized his attention for detail to create some of the most memorable and authentic wartime sequences we have seen in quite a while. Lone Survivor might not be the impeccable portrait of the soldier’s mentality and physical challenges but it certainly has enough positive qualities to make it a worthy depiction of modern warfare’s ethical dilemmas, psychological effects, and brutally physical challenges.

Grade: B-/B

Side Note: This movie will be released in limited theaters December 27th

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