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Whether talking about a cinematic experience or hearing details of the real thing, the gallantry and heroism of our men and women at arms can never be overstated, be it in service to the defenseless, protecting the nation or for reasons with which everyone may not agree. Though ironically just that – overstated – at a number of junctures, Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor is nevertheless an often breathless and riveting tale of a small band of brother’s desire to survive, and how a greater objective can become a moot point at a moments notice.
Lone Survivor once again makes the case that focusing on a smaller portion of a greater conflict is the proper way to go when attempting to make the events of a war film hit close to home. While sweeping, melodramatic conflict driven dramas have their place (and there are some great ones) there is little substitute to spending an intense two hours with a few select individuals as you follow them through a life or death ordeal. When the film’s very title overtly hints that there will certainly be more death than life on screen, the experience becomes that much more uncomfortable and traumatic as we watch in unfold, unable to do anything but act as helpless spectator.
The biggest compliment that I can pay to Lone Survivor is that it uses the already established nature of its outcome to its advantage rather than allow it to become a constraint that would dampen the impact. Despite the fact that only Mark Wahlberg’s Marcus Luttrell escapes from the mountainous Kunar province of Afghanistan after the botched Red Wings assassination mission, equal time is spent with his three fellow Navy SEALs, never using them merely as canon fodder as our indestructible hero defeats the odds. The film treats them as humans, with loved ones, fears and souls and in doing so, as they are overcome by their ordeal, the losses hit closer to the heart.
The simple fact we are aware of the outcome means the very journey organically notches up the suspense and all encompassing sense of dread. The stench of death is oppressive and in caring for these individuals and knowing and witnessing their fate it evokes a sort of anger reminiscent of the unfairness present in real conflict. Good, honest men may die, and it may be the furthest thing from fair or just, but that’s simply the ugly nature of the beast, and Lone Survivor mirrors that frustration through its execution alone.
The four principle cast members are all extremely solid, utilizing their shared screen time to great effect be it alone or with the group. Wahlberg, perpetually the everyman, anchors the picture and brings both the physicality and necessary weakness as the film evolves from firefight to survival situation. Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch have just the right look and overall level of public exposure to recede into their doomed characters, as they too sell their respective journeys towards the end. By far the most surprising member in terms of performance was that of Taylor Kitsch (reteaming with Berg after the dreadful Battleship) who in addition to acting believably as the squad leader employs a delicate blend of grace, heroism and humanity to a role that could have been anything but. This performance proves this young man has a future far beyond doomed blockbusters.
The film’s biggest folly comes when it paints these soldiers as nearly indestructible machines of war. Amidst what is some of the best shot and choreographed fighting in recent memory we get so many noble, eyes to the sky, slump to the knees, death scenes it both seeks to undermine the credibility of the situation and the otherwise brutal and realistic injuries these men endure. It’s at those points that Lone Survivor makes itself clear it’s no Saving Private Ryan. In films of that echelon when someone is on the receiving end of a bullet, in that moment at least, it is anything but heroic and patriotic. It’s a person, alone in a pool of blood, gasping on a last few futile breaths, and its all the more searing because of it.
All that being said, Lone Survivor puts us and its protagonists through the ringer and while presenting them as the supposed elite, never releases its grasp on the situation at hand in favour of pro American pandering. It’s as intense and grisly as an experience you’re likely to witness this year and though it stops short of greatness, its strides are mighty enough to take us places we don’t want to be, and that we can’t leave behind.