This review contains spoilers.
Action and war films fill a very distinct niche in American cinema. Through them, we learn more about the realities of war and the sacrifice of soldiers. In Peter Berg's "Lone Survivor," we get all of this in a convincing and harrowing fashion, making for a quality genre addition were it not for the quintessential Hollywood need to exaggerate.
"Lone Survivor" follows the harrowing experiences of four Navy SEALs during a botched mission to eliminate a high-priority target in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush region.
Adapted from The New York Times bestseller by Marcus Luttrell, it is a story of brotherhood, courage and sacrifice. The opening credits run over shaky video of actual Navy SEAL hopefuls failing at multiple stages in the arduous training routines designed to weed out all but the strongest soldiers. Barely older than boys, they're shivering, exhausted and almost always wet. For every soldier that keeps his feet and pushes onward, two seem to collapse under the stress. Pushed beyond the limits of their endurance, one by one they capitulate.
Once the training sequence is over, the movie gives a brief glimpse into the routines of Mark Wahlberg as Petty Officer 1st Class Marcus Luttrell, Taylor Kitsch as Lt. Michael P. Murphy, Emile Hirsch as Gunner's Mate 2nd Class Danny Dietz, and Ben Foster as Sonar Technician 2nd Class Mathew "Axe" Axelson as they prepare to take part in Operation Red Wings.
Though action movies are habitually short on character development, this film gives us snapshots into who these men were. Furthermore, Wahlberg and company do a great job of bringing their roles to life. Some of that can be attributed to harsh physical and combat training at the hands of actual military personnel Berg arranged prior to filming. This pays off because they move and react convincingly as SEALs. The acting as a whole is some of the best in a war movie.
The action is where this movie shines. The heroes manage a ruthless level of precision without demonstrating the god-like powers of the action heroes of old. They get shot and they bleed. It becomes almost an ordeal to watch the many injuries inflicted on them.
Mechanically, this movie delivers on all fronts. Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler and his team shot much of the movie on three handheld cameras to make the film appear documentary-like. Many modern movies tend to rely on this aesthetic, but Schliessler uses it to great effect. ***Mixed in with shots down the scope of rifles, overhead cameras and Steadicam shots, the movie is visually appealing and the action relentless.
Colby Park Jr. did a great job of editing the movie into a coherent story. In addition, post-rock band Explosions in the Sky's collaboration with composer Steve Jablonsky turned out to be a competent score.
Unfortunately, now comes this film's only drawback. The story on which it is based, great enough on its own, suffers from Hollywood touches that sour its ring of truth.
In real life, Luttrell is saved by Afghan villagers, but they don't fight off the Taliban for him. There is a beautifully shot sequence of the villagers standing up to Taliban forces that echo the courage and sacrifice the SEALs have shown. Yet, in trying to show we are all kin in a universal brotherhood, Berg makes it feel forced, contrived.
Ultimately, it comes across as heavy-handed storytelling.
Is this a good movie? Yes. If Berg had left it as a story about the sacrifice, courage and brotherhood of the SEALs, there would be no complaint. By adding that last bit, he doomed it to be just short of being a great movie.