Since the second outbreak of war in the Gulf, worldwide cinema has provided little to document this turbulent period of modern history. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) has been the frontrunner of the few releases, and after garnering six Oscars, it’s an odd circumstance that finds Lone Survivor the closest thing to a follow up on the topic. Whereas the former – set in Iraq – delivered a powerful actioner with personal drama at its centre, Lone Survivor pays tribute a true story of desperate men serving in Afghanistan, trying to survive in desperate circumstances. While it may not deliver the same lasting impression, it certainly packs a punch of its own.
Based on real events in 2005, the film tells the story of Operation Red Wings; a failed counter-insurgent mission carried out by the US Navy SEALs intended to bring down a Taliban leader. Tasked with carrying out reconnaissance in the area, Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) heads out with three others to secure the target village.
The identity of the film’s titular character is revealed early on, and with a marketing campaign focused on Wahlberg, this is not a surprise. However, it does not remove the sense of impending threat from the piece, instead acting as preparation for what is to come.
After a long trek to the target, and intermittent communication issues with the US base, the team is forced to wait behind enemy lines for cover of darkness before moving to higher ground in search of a signal. Each member of the team is already instilled with a personal story and are easily identified as individuals, despite their uniformly gruff, beardy appearance. Lone Survivor is certain to build an image of not just the US military, but the struggles and character of the individuals within it, making for an all the more tense atmosphere when things go wrong.
Before they are able to find a better position, the team is stumbled upon by a group of goat herders, who are quickly identified as members of the Taliban. At this point, Lone Survivor shows itself as a film of comment, not just content, as a discussion breaks out over what to do with the newly taken prisoners. Since the outbreak of war in Afghanistan in 2001, public perception of the military has been rocked by several scandals involving the soldiers’ treatment of not only their enemy, but also the native population. This is a point that Lone Survivor is not afraid to touch upon, and while the varying motives of those involved, particularly Ben Foster’s Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson, are questionable, they do give an insight into the working minds of soldiers in the field.
What follows descends into chaos, as the group is found and forced into a prolonged running battle. This sequence is grueling, brutal and due to the lack of soundtrack and repeated gunfire, an uncomfortable experience. The film captures the appropriate sense of dread and panic no doubt felt in the situation – a sentiment that can be applied to the majority of its running time.
While there are moments that certainly come across as misjudged, director Peter Berg does well to keep the atmosphere going. After writing the film based on a book by Marcus Luttrell, it is clearly a story that is personal to the director, and no one could argue that it was one worth telling. The script has momentum and the characters are well drawn, with Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch supporting the action well despite lacking the opportunity to stamp any unique moments into packed action sequences, while Mark Wahlberg’s evolving erratic behavior creates a growing tension throughout. Aside from the violent realities of a warzone, Lone Survivor also has the thought to instill an optimistic sense towards its climax that helps it to stand above what could have been an empty tale.
Where the film does let itself down is in the detail; Eric Bana’s optimistic yet serious commanding officer is wasted in his presence, while ill-timed use of slow motion and implausible escape routes detract from what is a worthwhile story.
Lone Survivor tells an admirable story well. The cast do what they can to elevate it above the normal war flick that it was in danger of being, and (as usual), the opening disclaimer “Based on true events” adds the gravitas needed for this brutal telling of one of the war’s symptomatic failures.