‘Lone Survivor’ encapsulates complexities of modern war

By Shawn Cooke / Staff Writer

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

You could argue that the climax of “Lone Survivor” occurs just halfway into the movie.

After Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and his team of Navy SEALs are discovered by three mountain herders (two boys and an old man), they are presented with three options: set them free — which could compromise their mission — abandon them to battle the elements or kill them and proceed without a hitch in their mission.

Some of the men think that killing the herders is the only way to fulfill the greater mission of taking out Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. But Luttrell lets his humanity and fear of CNN headlines declaring that “SEALs kill kids” get the best of him, and decides to let the herders go.

Aside from hurtling their mission, Operation Red Wings, into a tailspin, this scene epitomizes so much of the United States’ last 10 years of foreign policy debate in one crucial moment. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have faced sharp criticism for the alarming collateral damage of the United States’ recent Middle Eastern wars. The “greater good” argument is often employed to justify civilian casualties from drone strikes and other aerial bombings, and it might seem like “Lone Survivor” is headed for a similar justification of the more controversial acts of war.

Though the decision could have spared the lives of several courageous Navy SEALs, director and writer Peter Berg doesn’t simply want “Lone Survivor” (adapted from Luttrell’s book of the same name) to be viewed as an ends-justify-the-means glorification of warfare — he’s far more concerned with honoring the men who fight the wars. Unlike 2012’s bleaker and more procedural portrait of the war in Afghanistan, “Zero Dark Thirty,” Berg embraces the “rah-rah” inspiration that director Kathryn Bigelow so adamantly eschewed.  

Before Operation Red Wings takes place, “Lone Survivor” attempts to scratch the surface of the men’s psychological approach to warfare and methods of coping. It’s clear that many of the SEALs approach war as “just another day at the office” — but not in the sense of a cliched action hero. Matt “Axe” Axelson (seasoned war-movie veteran Ben Foster) jokingly tells his wife via instant message that their forthcoming mission is just “paying the bills.”  

Most of the SEALs seem to treat their time in Afghanistan as one long workday, with downtime consumed by constant reminders of life at home — whether they take the form of wedding planning or selecting paint colors for their houses. These brief nostalgic moments and preparations are the closest Berg comes to fully realizing the supporting characters, yet these efforts are almost entirely abandoned in the film’s breakneck second half.

After the herders are set free, “Lone Survivor” clips along with a predictable, yet harrowing sensation of doom. While the title leaves little to the imagination, the ambush is filmed with a gripping intensity and unsettling moments of violence. From when the Taliban first attacks Luttrell and his team, Berg conveys the dire hopelessness of their situation with fluid camera control and tasteful amounts of shakiness. But that doesn’t mean he completely strays from generic action-movie histrionics.

Some crucial moments (including the death of a major character) are filmed in tiresome slow motion. Reliance on such an overused technique significantly detracts from the film’s realism, walking a thin line between the dramatic and the off-putting. Given the subject matter at hand, we don’t need to see the team fly off the cliff in slow motion after an explosion to feel some visceral connection with Luttrell and his men. It’s often difficult to distinguish whether “Lone Survivor” was intended to be a military drama or military action film. Luckily, it’s buoyed by a nuanced lead performance that injects some weight into the movie’s second half.  

Wahlberg, especially when left to his own devices, turns in one of his most convincing performances to date. Despite a lack of character development across the board, Wahlberg effectively conveys fear, desperation and survival instincts to eclipse the film’s more general themes of brotherhood and honor.

It’s these broad themes that represent both the power and undoing of “Lone Survivor”: its intentions usually seem to be coming from an admirable place — even when the execution calls those very intentions into question.

Leave a comment.