Peter Berg, all is forgiven. Though the director once brought us the absolutely awful Battleship, he has successfully redeemed himself with Lone Survivor, a gripping and rousing tribute to the United States servicemen who risk their lives each and every day in the name of their country. It feels strange to be reviewing Berg’s film – as if I could ever criticize it for attempting to honor those men and women by viscerally depicting just a handful of them making the ultimate sacrifice in combat. No, Lone Survivor is a film of immense power, and it is almost beyond criticism because of that.
With that disclaimer, I must confess, I did not love it unconditionally. This is a Hollywood film, and Lone Survivor feels cheaper for that in certain moments. It’s no spoiler to say that Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) is the lone survivor of the title, and that his three SEAL teammates on Operation Red Wings did not make it home. Keeping that in mind, that Berg feels the need to give each of them prolonged, heroic exits on screen robs the film of an essential truth – simply put, Michael Murphy, Matthew Axelson and Danny Dietz died up in the mountains of Afghanistan, alone. Luttrell never saw them die, and we will never know exactly how their final moments played out. The same goes for the last stretch of the movie, in which Luttrell is rescued by villagers who take up arms against the Taliban hunting him in order to save his life. Large stretches of those scenes are disturbingly fictionalized, and that doesn’t sit right with me. There’s a stunning, true tale of American heroism at Lone Survivor‘s core. So why did Berg feel any need to embellish?
Inaccuracies aside, Lone Survivor does its job – presenting a tale of American heroism – extremely well. Berg’s script is tight and admirably restrained, neatly establishing each character just as much as is necessary before leaping into the actual mission. His real success, though, is behind the camera, where he directs the action sequences with equal parts ruthlessness and reverence. One truly gets a flavor for the ferocity of modern warfare, and for the particularly horrific hardships that Luttrell, Murphy, Axelson and Dietz were forced to endure up in the mountains of Afghanistan during Operation Red Wings.
Berg also knows that his protagonists, inspiring though they are, were never superhuman. A grueling conversation early in the film finds the four debating the ethics of permanently silencing an elderly shepherd and two teenage goat herders who spot them spying on a village. The four men bleed, and they break, as their decision to let the villagers go brings the full force of the Taliban down on their heads. Watching the determined faces of Luttrell, Murphy, Axelson and Dietz as they’re pummelled by bullets, RPGs and their surroundings is a gut-punch of a viewing experience.
The same can be said of Lone Survivor as a whole, both for the grittiness of the subject matter and for what the film says about the mess surrounding Operation Red Wings. Though the men at its center are pure, the war they’re waging is not, and the brutal and confusing nature of the War in Afghanistan is communicated in just how little characterization the Taliban villains are given. They’re Call of Duty-esque targets to be dispatched by the four leads, and that’s more than a little disturbing (though indicative of public opinion towards the war).
Lone Survivor is aided by its absolutely stellar crop of actors. Wahlberg, Ben Foster (as Axelson), Taylor Kitsch (as Murphy) and Emile Hirsch (as Dietz) all give powerhouse performances that simultaneously honor the men they’re portraying and turn Lone Survivor into a nail-biting war thriller that doesn’t lose sight of the real people at its heart. In particular, Foster reminds us why he’s considered to be one of the best character actors currently working today, and Wahlberg mightily carries the film while proving himself capable of balancing machismo and warrior spirit with stirring emotion.
I understand if you’re a little confused by the path this review has taken. I really liked Lone Survivor. I did. I’m just disappointed that I can’t extol it without qualification. Berg’s error in taking liberties with his source material almost spoiled the film for me. But eventually, the director’s compelling work behind the camera, the brilliant work of the four leads, and the inherently patriotic and rousing spirit of Lone Survivor got to me. This is a film which, for its blatant flaws, has its heart in the right place. And that’s something I’m more than happy to applaud.
This movie got an absolutely top-notch Blu-Ray treatment from Universal. The 1080p picture quality is highly detailed and colored, never sacrificing its quality even as the battle sequences rage at a furious tempo. Everything from the fabric on Luttrell’s gloves to the rough edges of shale in the cliffs of Afghanistan is crystal clear, and that does a lot to really bring you into the movie. Facial appearances are extremely lifelike, and the blood that often covers them also looks amazingly realistic. Skin tones are never anything less than flawless, and the black levels remain solid throughout. I found Lone Survivor‘s video quality to be superb in every way.
The same goes for the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track, which elegantly balances barked dialogue, jarring gunfire and smaller background sound effects. Lone Survivor is a movie that is reliant on huge amounts of sound, particularly during the extended battle sequence at its center. The presentation is really robust, with the different layers of audio working to pull you into the film. Gunfire, explosions, screams and other sounds of combat build to jaw-dropping effect at multiple points throughout the film. Even in its quieter moments, though, this is a flawless audio track that will please Blu-Ray aficionados to no end.
Lone Survivor comes equipped with a few special features, including:
- Will of the Warrior (28:05)
- Bringing the Story to Life (4:44)
- Recreating the Firefight (10:27)
- Learning the Basics (6:02)
- The Fallen Heroes of Operation Red Wings
- Michael Murphy (4:00)
- Matthew Axelson (3:40)
- Danny Dietz (3:48)
- Tribute to the Fallen Heroes of Operation Red Wings (5:05)
- The Pashtun Code of Life (4:07)
- iTunes-compatible/UV Digital Copy
Out of all of these, “Will of the Warrior” is certainly the best and most complete bonus feature. Profiling Marcus Luttrell, the featurette starts out by looking at his story, exploring why he became a Navy SEAL and looking at what drove him forward then, at the time of Operation Red Wings, and to a lesser degree now. It then segues into looking at Lone Survivor through Luttrell’s eyes. Touched upon are his understandable reluctance to hand his memoir over to a filmmaker, his look around the production facility, how he feels Lone Survivor captured the truth of what happened, what he sees as the point of the film, his experiences with Berg and even more. It’s a must-watch for people who want a closer look at the actual man behind the film.
“Bringing the Story to Life” looks at how Berg became involved with the story, briefly exploring his experiences working with Luttrell and on set with the actors and crew. It’s much smaller but still an interesting watch.
Anyone who wants to know more about the arduous process of figuring out logistics for and then shooting the action sequences in Lone Survivor will want to check out “Recreating the Firefight,” which goes through that process in detail. It talks about finding the ideal shooting locations, making sure the set was safe for all involved (particularly the actors and stuntmen) and what was particularly tough about the sequences (hint: a lot).
As its title suggests, “Learning the Basics” walks viewers through how the actors trained to prepare for the intense action and combat scenes in the film. It was a very rigorous process, one which Luttrell actually contributed to, and it’s thrilling to see that the actors in Lone Survivor believed in the story and message of the film enough to put themselves through a highly demanding training course.
Split up into multiple parts, “The Fallen Heroes of Operation Red Wings” memorializes the heroes of the film by talking about each of them in turn and exploring how they were portrayed in the film. This, more than anything else in Lone Survivor, communicates the fact that real men died during Operation Red Wings, men with families, loved ones, personalities and passions. Check these out, for sure – if you saw Lone Survivor, you understand the need to pay respect to the heroes of the American military, and these featurettes do it with grace.
Mohamad Gulab actually speaks for “The Pashtun Code of Life,” via translator, to talk about the Pashtun code that he invoked to save the life of Marcus Luttrell when the SEAL came to him grievously wounded and with enemies at his back. Gulab has a very interesting on-screen presence, one that’s hard to describe, but definitely take a look at this featurette. It brings a new perspective into a film that’s occasionally overtly jingoist.
Lone Survivor boasts first-class video and audio transfer work, as well as a strong selection of bonus features, so this Blu-Ray is a great buy for fans of the film. I count myself as one of those fans, though as I said before, Lone Survivor isn’t perfect. It loses some of its force by deviating from the facts. Despite that, the performances are all fantastic, and Berg’s direction is appropriately atmospheric and visceral. Don’t pass up Lone Survivor; it succeeds in capturing the intensity of modern warfare, joining the ranks of such classics as Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker. Even with its flaws, it’s an undeniably important and remarkable achievement.
Marred only by a disappointing refusal to adhere to the facts, Lone Survivor is a rousing, riveting and appropriately reverent tribute to the American servicemen who risk their lives for this country.