Not for a while has a film been released to such mixed and strongly diversive reviews as Lone Survivor. Based on the true story of the aborted 2005 Operation Red Wings and sourced by the memoir of its sole survivor Marcus Luttrell, Justin Chang of Variety magazine states that the film is “the most gruelling and sustained American combat picture since Black Hawk Down“, whilst LA Weekly’s Amy Nicholson dismissed it as nothing more than “a jingoistic snuff film”. Perhaps conveniently for the purposes of this review, I fell somewhere in between these two extremes. A large amount of criticism for the film has been aimed towards the embellishment and truthfulness of certain elements of the story, but I am going to avoid these debates as best as I can and will instead try to focus purely on the cinematic pros and cons of the piece. That is, after all, why I am here.
The first thing that struck me about Lone Survivor was how aesthetically pleasing it is. The cinematography is really very beautiful, especially in the first third of the film before the tragedy begins to unfold. The tone and atmosphere obviously changes as the gratuitous violence begins, but the picture remains highly stylised throughout and is a work of real craft and ability, a jarring pleasure on the eye even when bullets, bones and blood are filling the screen. The film is very heavy handed and forceful when it comes to morals and the glorification of the American military. This is made very clear from the onset with an early sequence in which the ill-fated SEALs are being briefed about acting in accordance with the law that is played out intermittently alongside a suspected Afghan traitor being savagely beheaded by Taliban henchmen. The title of the picture, as well as the well publicised nature of the true story, leaves no mystery as to the outcome of the narrative, and the middle third of Lone Survivor is devoted solely to the depiction of the gun fight in between the SEALs and the Taliban in the hostile mountain setting. I must admit that this is where the film began to lose me as a viewer, as what was for the first forty minutes a genuinely interesting and character driven story, became a real life adaptation of something that would not have been out of place in a version of Call Of Duty. The relentless shooting, falling, exploding, and screaming of the near forty five minute sequence, whilst being expertly shot and horrifyingly realistic, turned what had up to that point been rather full and engaging characters in to action movie stereotypes. The film is let down by an endless tirade of embarrassing and cliched dialogue, with phrases such as “you can die for your country, and I’ll live for mine”, “never end the fight, brother” and “I am the reaper” seeming forced and almost parodical in the situation.
Having said that, I cannot sit here and say that I did not enjoy Lone Survivor, in fact, I enjoyed it much more than I had anticipated I would. The main reasons for this unexpected enjoyment lie in the film’s leading cast and in the two thirds of the plot that didn’t focus on the video game like shoot out. I’ll come right out and confess that I have a strong love for Mark Wahlberg that dates back to the days of the Funky Bunch, and school girl crush aside I genuinely believe that he is an engaging and arresting performer. Each actor had very little time to create a sympathetic character before the tropes of the action movie took over, but Wahlberg and co (Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster) did enough for me to be truly invested in each of them as the devastation played out. This humanistic aspect of the film was recovered again in the final third of the picture, as Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg) is forced in to a state of complete vulnerability at the hands of Afghan villagers whom he neither understands nor originally trusts. In particular, a brief but powerful relationship is formed between Luttrell and a young boy that, whilst no doubt is included in the narrative for shameless reasons of sentimentality, did the trick for me and had more than a few tears streaming from my eyes as the emotional exhaustion of the entire film drew to a close.
If I were to be completely truthful, Lone Survivor is perhaps a film that I set out not to like. I found myself subconsciously aligning my opinion with that of Amy Nicholson and her negative take on the arguable jingoism and embellishment that the picture contained. There was something about it, however, that I cannot deny affected me. Perhaps it was the display of brotherly sacrifice, perhaps it was my affection for the film’s cast, perhaps I was just swept away in the emotion and exhaustion of the whole ordeal. Whatever it was, it worked. I accept that the film is flawed in some ways, ways that will put people off indefinitely, but there was enough content that I connected with throughout to find more enjoyment in Lone Survivor than I had expected to. It was perhaps these low expectations that ultimately did me a favour.