As a modern war film, this is a harrowing and devastatingly exciting masterpiece
You’d better put on knee and elbow-pads, a crash-helmet and stick a gum-shield in your mouth, because with Peter Berg’s pulverising Taliban shoot-em-up, Lone Survivor, you are sure as hell going to need them.Based upon SEAL trooper Marcus Luttrell’s bestselling account of a disastrous four-man Special Forces mission in the mountainous Hindu Kush region of Northern Afghanistan, of which he was the only one to make it out alive, this excruciatingly vivid depiction eschews any glamour or sensationalism that Hollywood, or the man behind the abysmal Battleship, could camouflage it with. Berg and his cast lived and trained with real SEAL personnel and had tofight hard to gain their respect. There is no mistaking the gung-ho, sabre-rattling approach and the jingoistic sense of unimpeachable patriotism that courses through the story, but the results are a riveting and heart-stopping tribute to men who regularly place themselves in mortal peril and battle through the most hideous of situations. Soft hearts and liberal pansies best steer well clear.
“You are never out of the fight.”
Tasked with taking out or capturing a high-ranking Taliban commander, Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), his team-mates Axe (Ben Foster) and Danny (Emile Hirsch), and their team-leader Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) are dropped deep into the badlands, just four men in the midst of an army. And, just as with the ill-fated and celebrated SAS patrol, Bravo Two Zero, during the first Gulf War, they are almost immediately compromised by raggedy goat-herders. Faced with the gut-wrenching decision of whether they should kill these unarmed civilians – who are very definitely Taliban sympathisers, but still merely an old man and two boys – or let them go free, the four men go through a severely inopportune crisis of conscience. And the repercussions of their actions will see them under siege by overwhelming numbers of Taliban and al-Qaeda warriors. All four of them will be shot and badly injured, but they will fight on to the last man on a mountain that is just as hostile and deadly as their enemies.
There hasn’t been a set-piece this gut-wrenching since Tom Hanks stormed Omaha Beach.
Powerful and incredibly exciting, Berg’s tremendously visceral tour de force is a strongly defined three-act story, the middle section being an intense and sure-to-be notorious firefight that is guaranteed to leave you stunned and reeling. Put quite simply, there hasn’t been a set-piece this gut-wrenching since Tom Hanks stormed Omaha Beach and, for my money, this actually tops it. With makeup effects from Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger (both taking time off from The Walking Dead), there is an accuracy to the violence that is unforgettable and a kinetic brutality to its relentlessness. You will feel the kiss of bullets and the harsh, unyielding stone of the mountain.
Authenticity is paramount.
These guys genuinely look, sound and move like professional Navy SEALs. Their weapon-handling, magazine-changes and fire-and-move tactics are exemplary, as is their practical, no-nonsense battlefield gusto. This adherence to realism stretches from their bushy beards (US Navy are allowed to grow them) to their customised equipment, and from the red New York City fireman’s patch on Kitsch’s arm (Murphy had worn it ever since 9/11) and bonafide remembered dialogue, to their reactions to incoming gunfire and the shock of receiving sudden wounds with anger and frustration.
For anyone wanting to take pot-shots at the fact that these guys seem able to carry on hitting their targets and consistently dropping them whilst getting blasted themselves time and time again, it should be made clear that they are all highly trained snipers with the best weapons that Uncle Sam can provide while those encircling them are not that proficient and using hand-me-down AK47s and firing wildly. When these guys shoot – they kill. Period. Whilst they are all excellent at conveying honed responses to attack and swift, on-the-hoof decision making under constant and withering enemy fire, it is Wahlberg who really gets the attention. Watch how he reacts when bullets stipple the rocks behind him whilst he tries to calm down a frightened comrade, and how he holds his ears in the aftermath of an RPG explosion. His face and his eyes say it all. This situation sucks, man!
Good support comes from the indomitable Eric Bana as the SEAL operations commander whose famously committed attempts to get his boys back safely led to more appalling tragedy.
These guys genuinely look, sound and move like professional Navy SEALs.
But once again, we must turn to the savage action that is so well depicted, so bone-crunchingly choreographed and so utterly in-yer-face that it doesn’t need any added 3D gimmickry to bruise the senses. Not since Black Hawk Down has modern warfare been this brilliantly captured on film. The two key standout sequences are undoubtedly those showing the bullet-riddled SEALs plummeting down the mountainside in the only possible withdrawal they can make. “Fall back!” Murphy orders in desperation. “You mean fall off?” clarifies Marcus, as the team hurtle like battered human torpedoes down a vicious, almost vertical slope, hitting every rock and every tree on the way down. As they cartwheel over fallen logs and bounce off stony outcrops, I defy you not to wince, gasp and recoil in adrenalized horror. That only one stuntman suffered during this tumultuous tumble – smashing up his ribs and puncturing a lung – is nothing short of miraculous. And if anyone thinks that Berg and Co. have overcooked these heart-in-mouth cascades, then bear in mind that, in reality, the team actually fell more times than the film shows, with Marcus, himself, gaining an unofficial world record in human landsliding.
A dreamy, melancholic score from Explosions in the Sky and Berg-veteran Steve Jablonsky soars with heart-aching splendour alongside the fear, dread and agony we see on the screen. The conventionally militaristic brass and percussion are jettisoned in favour of ambient textures and ethereal guitars, the music aiming for the fevered yet proud souls of men facing terrible death far from home. But heroism is still the order of the day, and the score valiantly follows one act of incredible self-sacrifice with a softly building sense of courageous euphoria.
Some may argue the politics and the rock-steady stance seen from only the US viewpoint – but this is the point. This is the story of men who have been trained to fight the enemy with absolute conviction and self-belief, and their solid, unbreakable camaraderie through a veritable hell-storm of pain and desperation. To attempt to portray the values of the Taliban and those who fall under their sway would be to short-change the story and to devalue the memories of Marcus Luttrell. And to those reviewers who have complained about the lack of characterisation – just how much characterisation do you think you are going to get when watching these guys operate for little over a day, and during an intense, and central firefight that is presented in practically real-time?
Far for more than a Taliban Tears in the Sun, Lone Survivor hits the dilemma that stifles and often dooms small covert units in action behind enemy lines. The moral vortex that so often drops them in the brown stuff when they fall foul of political soft-bellies and their desk-contrived Rules of Engagement. Marcus Luttrell admits that he made the wrong call and voted badly, but until you find yourself in such a life or death situation far from help, you simply cannot make any judgment on what soldiers should do when caught between a rock and hard place. Wisely, Berg’s film doesn’t attempt to back either side of the moral divide. It simply observes these guys wrangling over the possible consequences of letting those goat herders go, or not. Debatably, the eventual situation might still have occurred but, for the Lone Survivor, this dark conundrum he and his best friends encountered on the side of a hill in Afghanistan’s treacherous bandit country will haunt him until the end of his days.
Berg’s film doesn’t attempt to back either side of the moral divide
As a modern war film, this is a harrowing and devastatingly exciting masterpiece of stark, high velocity violence. As a study of ferocious combat, it is second to none. And even if it feels like a two-hour salute to the valour of the US Navy SEALs, then you need to remember that no matter how exhilarating the action is and how ghastly Marcus Luttrell’s experiences are, the film only offers us a condensed account of what really happened in that deceptively lush and verdant hill country.
Oscar buzz might be a trifle exaggerated. This is the sort of movie that can really only attract technical merit from the Academy. But within its own incendiary, blood-squibbed genre, I think it is magnificent. The carnage is deeply affecting, the performances are all highly believable and natural – with special kudos going to Wahlberg and Foster, whose bloodied visage and shining, radiant eyes will linger in your dreams for a long time to come – and the direction is sinew taut. Berg will almost certainly topple back down his own creative mountain and land in a heap in the middle of more popcorn-friendly and commercial fare but, for now, this is gloriously hard-hitting.
There, with a bullet.
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