Lone Survivor (★★★½)

lone_survivorFor most of the  two-hour plus running time of Peter Berg‘s true life war tale Lone Survivor, the film is content to simply be a very good action flick with a slightly deeper emotional underpinning than you’re expecting. It’s easily Berg’s best work to date, but you never quite understand why folks have raved. Then, the final sequence and then end credits begin, and you’re reduced to tears almost immediately, and you understand. This movie is actually a tear-jerker, and an earned one at that. Yes, Berg is manipulating a bit in adapting former SEAL Marcus Luttrell‘s memoir, but after what you’ve gone through, it just works. The quartet of Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster are all very good as the soldiers caught up in a deadly battle, so there’s top-notch acting on display too. They convince you of their brotherhood, so when the bullets start flying in an intense battle sequence that’s incredibly tough to sit through (in a powerful way) you really care about their lives. This is called Lone Survivor after all, so you pretty much know how it’s going to end, but it manages to make you cry anyway. I wasn’t expecting it, but this is one of my favorite films of 2013.

The film is based on SEAL Team 10’s failed “Operation Red Wings” that took place on June 28th, 2005. The mission had four SEAL members attempting to capture or kill a Taliban leader named Ahmad Shahd. Before the operation begins though, we’re introduced to the men we’ll be following into battle. They are Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Foster). You see them paling around, giving some light hazing to the new guy Shane Patton (Alexander Ludwig), and then being told their mission is a go. Soon after it begins though, they come across an Afghani family herding goats and have to figure out what to do with them. Do they let them go and risk being discovered by the Taliban? Do they kill them? Do they just tie them up, which is tantamount to a death sentence too? How important is this mission? There isn’t agreement over what to do, as tensions begin to flare up. Once they make their tough decision, things begin to devolve and soon they’re all in the fight of their lives. I don’t want to say what happens next, but as I mentioned above, it packs a punch.

lone-survivorI was very fond of all the four main performances in the movie. That being said, my least favorite performance was actually from Mark Wahlberg. He’s good in the movie, but Wahlberg looks a bit too much like an action hero for the part in my mind. It’s a small complaint, since Wahlberg challenges himself here in a way that he only periodically does, but I do wish that he had made himself look a little more everyman like, even though obviously SEALs are hardly normal guys. My favorite performance belongs to Ben Foster, who once again impresses in a key supporting role. Foster is great here and he really does need a baity lead role soon. Once he has it, he’s an Oscar nominee, I can all but assure you of that. Hell, switch him out with Wahlberg and he gets a ton of buzz this year. As for Emile Hirsch, he’s able to stand toe to toe with these bigger guys and turn in very good work as well. I’m a big Hirsch fan and always like what he does, so it was no surprise to see him handle this part with aplomb, but it pleased me nonetheless. Finally, and most impressively, Taylor Kitsch delivers his best bit of acting to date. He’s yet to really show me much to this point, but that changed here. Kitsch has talent, believe me. Eric Bana has a solid supporting part as a commanding officer, while the aforementioned Alexander Ludwig is part of the rest of the supporting cast, which also includes Yousuf Azami, Jerry Ferrara, Ali Suliman, and more. Obviously, it’s Wahlberg, Foster, Hirsch, and Kitsch that lead the way though.

Peter Berg has always shown some aptitude as a director, but here with Lone Survivor it’s really the first time that he’s put it all together as a filmmaker. Not only is his direction really excellent, his writing is quite good as well. He’s able to tell a compelling story without ever driving things home too forcefully. Berg’s use of Steve Jablonsky‘s score and especially Tobias A. Schliessler‘s cinematography is excellent, particularly the camera work during the big battle sequence. Berg is able to drive it all home with that emotional climax too. When Peter Gabriel‘s cover of the David Bowie song “Heroes” begins playing, you’re made of stone if you don’t get choked up. Berg sticks the landing here with this film in a way that few movies in 2013 have been able to do.

For me, Lone Survivor is one of the better war movies we’ve had in some time, at least since Black Hawk Down. From the acting to the direction, everyone involved knew they were making something important and really upped their game. I was expecting to like this movie, but I wasn’t expecting to love it like I did. Lone Survivor will be on my 2013 Top Ten list and it’s one you really shouldn’t miss.

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