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by Eric Kohn
December 23, 2013 9:31 AM
9 Comments
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Review: Mark Wahlberg Valiantly Fights For His Life In Intense 'Lone Survivor,' But Its Pro-Militant Leanings Are Questionable

The tagline for "Lone Survivor," the violently unnerving depiction of a 2005 Navy SEAL mission gone wrong in Afghanistan, gets at the essence of its flaws: "Based on true acts of courage" conveys the same brand of blind self-empowerment behind the militant spirit behind the incursions at hand. As Noam Chomsky famously wrote with regard to the pervasive "Support Our Troops" campaign, it's "a slogan that nobody is going to be against and I suppose everybody will be for."

In other words, it's a rather pathetic marketing coup that lays bear the desperation of promoting a grisly project not strong enough to speak on its own terms. (Imagine the posters for "12 Years a Slave" carrying the same phrase.) "Lone Survivor" is a grotesque action movie at times impressively directed by Peter Berg that combines the brute masculinity with the ugliness of the battlefield and viscerally unsettling shock value. But it's less a depiction of courage than a brutish magnification of anger and pain, both of which it conveys a lot better than the high ground that it reaches for.

But, boy, does it reach. The opening training montage, which sets the stage for the ensuing tense tale of a botched assassination mission in the Afghan countryside, drags on and on throughout a prolonged credits sequence featuring documentary footage that may as well serve as a prolonged recruitment video. It's impressive to watch the Seals undergo extensive physical endurance tests just to prove how much they've been toughened up for the missions at hand, but it's also a rather empty introduction for anyone who doesn't automatically relate to the process at hand that basically says: These are guys tough. Is there nothing that can break them?

Those boundaries are capably tested when a small group of soldiers, including Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster), wind up in a prolonged firefight as their operation turns sour and survival prospects grow increasingly dim. "Winning here is a conscious decision," says their gruff commander (Eric Bana) ahead of the mission. Hurtling down a rocky mountainside while breaking bones and exchanging constant fire, the men are battered into a bloody pulp as the body count rises -- it's no spoiler to say that only one among them manages to escape the chaos with his life.

The bulk of the movie takes place under these drab proceedings, and Berg successfully ramps up the intensity with abrasive sound design and a rapid montage that constantly shifts between closeups of the frantic men and the speedy Taliban members lurking among the trees nearby. Like Berg's 2007's soldier drama "The Kingdom," the battle manages to convey a physically extreme process while at the same time feeling resoundingly empty. At least in Berg's "Battleship," the cartoonish belligerence operated under the guise of Hollywood escapism. No such luck in "Lone Survivor," which tries to use its gory visuals in service of blurry ideas about the nature of conflict.

In "Saving Private Ryan," the prolonged opening battle sequence managed to the convey the hellish nature of war precisely because it felt so impersonal. But "Lone Survivor" plays up a lightweight message about good and evil once Wahlberg's character happens upon neutral Afghani villagers who offer him aid at a critical moment in the third act. It's a rather simplistic equation -- they fought hard for a reason, you see -- that uses its non-fiction foundation like an excuse note. By the time it arrives at a coda filled with images of real life fallen soldiers set to a cover of David Bowie's "Heroes," the movie has unapologetically transformed into a commercial memorial both lamenting the stakes of military conflict and saluting it. Without delving much into the paradoxes of modern warfare, "Lone Survivor" embodies them.

Criticwire Grade: C

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening December 27 in limited release, "Lone Survivor" will hit theaters nationwide on January 10. The crowded year-end release calendar means it won't generate much box office heat at that time, but it could benefit from beginning of the year exposure as most awards season movies will have been out for some time by then. Still, it has slim prospects of a long-term performance. 


9 Comments

  • Joel | January 18, 2014 3:26 PMReply

    You're missing the point of the movie. How are your reviews being posted on metacritic

  • BigYalie | January 3, 2014 4:01 PMReply

    I believe this critic means to say "pro-military" and not "pro-militant." The review is so poorly written and argue that it is difficult to understand precisely why he is criticizing the film. Is it a general critique of the American involvement in Afghanistan? A critique of target assassinations? A critique of the way Hollywood films glorify American soldiers? On all counts this critic is dead wrong.

  • Daric | December 26, 2013 12:19 AMReply

    I find this to be a common theme in reviews of military movies. Critics want character development; otherwise, the characters are irrelevant. While this is certainly true in lots of movies, the nature of military service doesn't lend itself to a few minutes of fleshing out. It's difficult to flesh out the myriad motivations for why people join the service. I joined for college, which makes me an unwilling participant in war to many civilians. That is, until I tell them I enlisted during the Iraq surge, and that I volunteered for deployment. Then I'm back to being a complicit warrior for various corporate agendas, murderer of children (never discharged my weapon, not that it matters), ad nauseam.

    My point there is that whatever character development Peter Berg might've chosen to do, many veterans feel that civilians will fill in the blanks regardless of what our stories really are. I think a lot of civilians would simply find their stories unbelievable. Marcus Luttrell, for example, worked out with a former soldier for years in middle school and high school with the dream of being a SEAL.

    That doesn't fit the victim mold that increasing numbers of civilians are trying to fit veterans into. Surely there aren't people who spend their formative years training hard to gain entry into a group of warriors, right? Not in this age of enlightenment.

    As for it being a recruiting film, the sagging economy did all the recruiting the military ever needed. We're turning people away, or trying to find ways to get rid of the people we have. I think Congress might've helped us with that one with the bill to cut our pensions. Nobody's going to abuse their bodies for 20 years and hope Congress will take care of them after they're used up.

  • Evan | December 23, 2013 10:32 PMReply

    War is never pretty and there are decisions made in battle that are always life altering. The depiction of that in a movie will never match what happens in real life in real time. Ever.

  • ozzy | December 23, 2013 4:18 PMReply

    You are way off the deepend on this review. Film was A+

  • Daric | December 26, 2013 12:38 AM

    Eamon... I don't think a film critic needs you to white-knight for him.

  • Eamon | December 23, 2013 6:00 PM

    Another thoughtful rebuttal. Man, why doesn't Indiewire hire this guy.

  • Jack | December 23, 2013 10:18 AMReply

    This review is off the mark. Love this movie. A+

  • Eamon | December 23, 2013 3:19 PM

    Yeah, Eric Kohn, go home. This guy says he loved it.