Surrounded and Alone, by David Bax
Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor doesn’t have much in the way of brains except for the ones it liberally splatters across the Afghan countryside. It does, however, possess more than its share of guts and heart (while finding plenty of opportunities to splatter those, too). The result is a brawny and visceral war flick that will occasionally move you but to an end and for an intent that may not exist.
Lone Survivor is the true story of a Navy Seal mission in Afghanistan in 2005 that left three of the original four Seal participants dead, along with sixteen potential rescuers. That fourth Seal, Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), is the survivor of the title but he actually spends very little time being lone. First because his fellow soldiers fight tenaciously, battling on through gunshot wounds, broken bones and missing digits, among other things. And second because, even when Luttrell is the only America left, he’s surrounded by Afghanis of various morals, motivations and wills.
The title may be a giveaway that Luttrell makes it through the ordeal more or less intact but that doesn’t mean the film is without surprises. Berg (both as writer and director) and editor Colby Parker Jr. keep the tension at a maximum, maintaining both our and the Seals’ awareness of the immediate terrain and the mystery of what armed menace lies just beyond it.
Where the trouble in differentiation comes in is with the four main characters themselves. The appeal of the traditional platoon-at-war movie is that disparate personalities from varied backgrounds come together in their support of one another. Maybe the characters in Lone Survivor are more true to the trained and militarized super-soldiers they really would be but if they weren’t played by actors we recognize (Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch), it would be difficult to tell them apart.
Conversely and unexpectedly, the Afghani representations are given more shades. An early encounter with three goatherds who stumble upon the Seals’ hiding place – both the turning point of the film and easily its best scene – initially seems to give credence to the notion that anyone who looks like an Afghan is also Taliban. Some of the soldiers themselves are given to that same assumption but one of the film’s more quiet strengths is how it fleshes out the nature of the country’s populace, composed as it is of varied tribes with traditions and standards going back centuries. After more than an hour of attacks from “bad” Afghanis, we meet some “good” ones. But, the film only hints at asking, is one actually better or worse than the other when both are acting from entrenched dogmas? Tradition and custom are double-edge swords; they keep a people strong and firm up the community but they also build walls against progress and the acceptance of other ways of thought.
Don’t worry if this sounds like it’s getting too heady. Berg wastes precious little time on such questions and quickly returns to spilling blood and, especially in the final act, relying on thriller clichés that undercut his pretensions of verisimilitude. Twice in less than ten minutes, Luttrell is moments away from certain death before being saved by a kindness or a helping hand. The gruesome make-up effects of Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero may have at one point lent the film an unflinching realism but eventually they may as well be contributing to more the trope-heavy horror fare on which they’ve built their reputation.
Lone Survivor seems to want to be an eye-opening, stomach-churning survey of modern warfare and the men who carry it out – something Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down did much better more than a decade ago – but despite its blood-soaked, hard-R trappings, its gets most of its mileage out of brave, heartfelt speeches and photographs of the deceased. You might be moved but you’ll spend more energy on tears than thoughts.