In a sense, this movie almost shouldn’t work. The title alone tells you that only one person will survive the battle we are about to see, and the opening shows doctors working furiously to save Mark Wahlberg’s life. From the start, we know how this movie’s going to end even if we haven’t read the book this film is based on, so that should kill any suspense right there. But thanks to the tense direction of Peter Berg and a terrific cast, “Lone Survivor” proves to be one of the most visceral war movies that I have seen in quite some time.
Like every other movie coming out today, this one is based on a true story. Wahlberg portrays Marcus Luttrell, a United States Navy SEAL who along with three other Navy SEALS were dropped off in the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border to conduct a reconnaissance mission on notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. This particular Taliban leader was said to have close ties to Osama Bin Laden, and we watch as these soldiers keep a very close eye on him.
But during their mission, they end up getting accosted by a group of civilians whom they quickly restrain. Some of the Navy SEALS consider killing these people so that their mission can remain a secret, but Marcus manages to convince them that letting them go is the best option. To kill them would mean standing trial for murder and spending the rest of their lives in prison, and since that has already happened to other soldiers, they agree that they want to avoid that particular fate. So they let the civilians go and abort their mission, feeling that they will be exposed if they say any longer.
The time these men have to wonder if they made the right choice or not is cut short when they are ambushed by Taliban forces that appear to have them surrounded on all sides. From there, it is a race for survival as, despite their training, the SEALS find themselves outnumbered and out of communication range with the rest of their unit. From there, “Lone Survivor” becomes quite the blistering experience as you feel what these soldiers end up going through.
Berg starts the movie off with documentary footage of Navy SEAL training which is still considered the toughest military training anyone could be forced to endure. It is said that 70% of the soldiers who enlist in this training end up dropping out, and from what we see here that’s no surprise. I was immediately reminded of Ridley Scott’s “G.I. Jane” which had Demi Moore going through the torturous ritual of becoming a Navy SEAL, but seeing real people go through it here makes it seem even more brutal.
This opening succeeds in showing us how these soldiers end up forming such a close bond with one another, having succeeded in making it to the level of a Navy SEAL. But as this movie continues on, they will soon come face to face with something they are not used to enduring at all: failure.
Berg has proven himself to be a terrific action director with films like “The Rundown” and “The Kingdom,” and he really outdoes himself here. He makes you feel the bullet wounds, the cuts and dark bruises these men are forced to put up with as their chances for survival continue to run out. By the time “Lone Survivor” comes to its inevitable conclusion, I found myself feeling emotionally and physically exhausted by what I had just seen. This is a movie that barely lets you come up for air. Even though we know who the lone survivor of the movie’s title is going to be, we are still riveted because we still don’t want these soldiers to die.
It should also be noted that Berg treats this story with a lot of respect and doesn’t ever try to exploit what these soldiers went through for the sake of entertainment. We get to know these men well enough to where their eventual demise is all the tougher to take in. It also helps that Berg has quite the cast to help him make this film a reality. In addition to Wahlberg, “Lone Survivor” also stars Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster as the Navy SEALS, and each actor puts their all into roles that are physically and emotionally draining. Foster is especially a standout as Matthew Axelson who meets his end with a sheer defiance.
2013 was a busy year for Wahlberg as he starred in “Broken City,” “Pain & Gain” and “2 Guns” in addition to this. When all is said and done, “Lone Survivor” represents the best work he’s done this past year. While watching him here, you can tell how deeply he felt about this story just by looking at his eyes. Ever since he blew us away with his performance in “The Basketball Diaries,” Wahlberg has given us one unforgettable performance after another, and this is just the latest example. He’s never been the kind of actor who just walks through a role, and I believe him when he talks about the effect that playing Marcus Luttrell had on him.
There’s a lot more I would love to tell you about “Lone Survivor,” but I really don’t want to spoil all the surprises for those who haven’t read the book this film is based on. As much as I want to tell you that this is one of the first really good movies of 2014, it was given a limited release before the end of 2013. Oh well, whether you consider it a 2013 or 2014 film, “Lone Survivor” is certainly one of the most visceral experiences you can see in a movie theater right now. For those who like their movie going experiences filled with intense emotions, this is a must see.
* * * ½ out of * * * *
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