With the flurry of film releases hitting this month, it’s possible one or two may get overlooked, and in some cases that’s a tragedy. I was just talking to someone the other day about LONE SURVIVOR, and they said they knew nothing about it. The film, directed by Peter Berg, stars Mark Wahlberg as real life Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, and chronicles the failed 2005 “Operation Red Wings” mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. So why does it bother me that someone I know says they’ve not heard of it? Because it’s easily one of the best war films I’ve ever seen.
The opening introduces us to a SEAL team comprised of Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson (Ben Foster). After we learn a bit about their personal lives by observing them chatting online with loved one, the crew is give a dangerous assignment by Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana), to track down a Taliban leader. The crew quickly heads into dangerous territory to complete their assignment, but things go awry. Soon the tables have turned, and now the brave men find themselves fighting for their lives.
When you see movies that depict war and battle situations, it’s easy for things to fall into all-too-familiar territory, or just seem obligatory and formulaic. LONE SURVIVOR is the cure for this syndrome, as the gunfights are intense and riveting to a degree rarely experienced in films. Every gunshot feels explosive, every bullet hit is shocking, and the audience will feel as if they’re right in the middle of it all. Peter Berg has proven before he knows how to handle action, but this is easily his finest work in that department. There’s a realism and power here rarely exhibited in these types of films, and the end result is spectacular.
Mark Wahlberg is in fine form as Marcus Luttrell, never seeming overly heroic or cocky, just a man doing a very important job and trying to be careful about it. The real life Luttrell was actually very involved with the production, and even advising on set while the film was shooting. His connection with the production undoubtedly led to the authenticity of the finished product, and I’m guessing helped with the performances as well. Everyone else is solid and real in their respective roles. Taylor Kitsch, often accused of being wooden with his acting, is respectably sincere as Murphy, and his rugged good looks disappear in his grizzled appearance here. The always underrated Emile Hirsch is also great as Dietz, the line of communication between the men and their base. But one of the most impressive of the main group is Ben Foster as Axe, who has a cold as ice demeanor and takes perhaps the hardest pounding during battle. I’ve always loved Foster in films, and he’s once again proven he can make an impression despite a lot going on around him. All of the actors become surprisingly sympathetic for the audience, to where whenever anything happens to any of them we really feel for their plight… that’s not always the case in films about war.
The realism of the film comes in more forms than the depiction of battle. Subtle things like the slow but eventual swelling of bruises are done with the most convincing detail. Outside of the last 10 to 15 minutes, which feels a little more “Hollywood” than the rest of the film, LONE SURVIVOR is a brutally convincing war story, and one that deserves to be seen. In this packed holiday season of films, don’t let this one pass you by.