Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lone Survivor

And I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee
I Died With My Brothers—With a Full F**king Heart

Lone Survivor is "based on a true story"—that of the Navy Seal team involved in Operation Red Wings to capture Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, which ended disastrously for the participants—but it feels more like a testament.

It's directed by Peter Berg, who is at his best in the realm of psuedo-documentary, his roving camera acting as a fly-on-the-wall, catching the telling detail, the private moment, the feeling of a collective, like his 2004 film (and to a certain extent, subsequent TV-series) Friday Night Lights, or The Kingdom. His recent forays into A-list projects (like Hancock and the "film-of-the-board-game" Battleship) have been less successful, despite using his same camera-scheme to give them a lived-in feeling.

Lone Survivor, however, is a return to his strengths. Not burdened with a sprawling story-line or too many characters, Berg has focused his story-telling abilities and stays on the four men on the mission and their commitment to each other and their task. He's helped immeasurably by the four actors playing the small scouting task force: Taylor Kitsch (Gambit from X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the TV version of "Friday Night Lights," the lead in John Carter); Emile Hersch (Into the Wild, Milk, Speed Racer); Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma, The Messenger, Ain't Them Bodies Saints); and Mark Wahlberg
. Each one of these actors has carried movies—big movies—on their shoulders, and each one treats their roles, supporting or not, as a starring role. Wahlberg (who, as he's moved from actor to actor-producer and gotten astoundingly better as the former in the last few years) is top-lined, but fades into the mix with an understated performance that gives the film a great ensemble balance.
Kitsch as Lt. Murphy, Wahlberg as Luttrell, Foster as Axelson, and Hirsch as Dietz
"Ensemble" is the point. Berg starts Lone Survivor with "found footage" of Navy seal training—brutal, berating, limit-pushing—training that shows the individual what they're capable of, shows the squad what they can expect from each other, building the "trench camaraderie" without the deployment. The seals are pushed to the edge, brought back, and their very existence and presence is testament to their abilities to survive in extreme situations. The fact they're going through it together bonds them, as Wahlberg's opening narration states firmly. The film ends with footage of the real men who were lost—home movies and the like—showing the individuals now that we know them apart from the squad, and it's poignant, stirring, and heart-breaking.

In between is the story of the mission and how an act of conscience in extreme conditions can cost. There's been some fabrication of the story—the Taliban were not in a numbers position to attack the village, as shown—but the facts are basically there. On a reconnaissance mission, four Navy Seals are having difficulty contacting their base. They're found out by passing shepherds whom they tie and discuss what's to be done; it's not a democracy but everybody weighs in—kill the villagers and continue then mission, or let them go and try and contact the base, as the mission has been "compromised." "Rules of engagement" figure heavily in the discussion, but it comes down to rather than kill the villagers, let them go and scrub the mission, and get the hell out of there.

That would be in a perfect world, but it's Afghanistan. Soon the hills are alive with Taliban fighters and the four must engage and get out, while constantly being pushed down the terrain. Berg shoots this close-quartered and fast with the stuttered lens/editing that's been so effective since Saving Private Ryan. And it's here that the sound department kicks in with heightened effects, as well. It never feels like a video-game depiction, but with an overall perspective that lets you know where the four are in relation to each other, and fleeting glimpses of enemy positions. It's harrowing. And then, things go up a notch when the four have to desperately drop off mountain terrain with no forethought to what awaits below...not once, but twice. The imagery and especially the sounds of those sequence are painful—Lone Survivor received one Oscar nomination (for sound) and it is truly deserving of it (but, it was a little disappointing to not see a clip from this film in any of the broadcast's "heroes" montages). The sequences are visceral, painful to watch, and gut-wrenching.

And that's where Berg's strength lies as a director in a film like this—he keeps the work centered on the soldiers—this is not effect for effect's sake, it's part of character, woven throughout the film. By the end you wonder at the dedication and gut-level heroism of the people we, as a nation, throw into battle, and one can't help leaving the film, admiring..and mourning.
Matthew Axelson (far left); Danny Deitz (center left);
Marcus Luttrell (center right); Lt. Michael Murphy (far right)

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