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Zimbio Review - Action-Driven 'Lone Survivor' Cuts to the Chase

(L-R) Taylor Kitsch, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch in Lone Survivor. (Universal) Long story short: With a relentless firefight at its core, Lone Survivor is a military thriller but it suffers from too little time spent with the guys as people.

Lone Survivor will remind you of: Black Hawk Down, The Kingdom, Act of Valor, The Hurt Locker, Jarhead, Green Zone

Review: The firefight at the heart of Lone
is a trial of huge proportions that conveys the frightening reality four Navy SEALs faced in Afghanistan, 2005. Character development isn't the film's strong suit, but it doesn't have to be to propel this story where it needs to go. The goal is to place the audience in the action and convey the insane logic of war. There are choices made in Lone Survivor that get people killed but when the questions are impossible to answer, who can say what's right?

The film, directed by Peter Berg, begins with a garden variety intro of the troops. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) is the legend, Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and Axe (Ben Foster) are the savvy veterans, and Dietz (Emile Hirsch) is the new kid. They break balls and cavort without revealing anything interesting. Save for one scene that transitions into the operation with a fantastic SEAL poem in voice over, Lone Survivor does not wade heavy into military speak or culture. It wastes little time before cutting to the chase.

Tasked with bringing down a Taliban leader, Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), the four SEALs stake out the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan and await instructions. But the mission is compromised when goat farmers find the soldiers. Murphy radios for help but the communications don't work. The SEALs must decide whether to kill the farmers and continue on, or let them go and head for the extraction point knowing the Taliban will be alerted to their presence. The film conjures the hopelessness of the situation as well as the frustration. It's surreal watching Murphy make phone calls to headquarters while lives hang in the balance. 

Following The Rules of Engagement, the SEALs let the farmers go and seal their fate. Before long, the enemy is on top of them. Shots crack all around them and bullets whiz through the air, hissing with danger. The SEALs retreat and retreat again. Dietz is shot, but barely slowed. Murphy is shot, but wheels and keeps firing. More choices present themselves: The Americans can make a stand or jump off a cliff and hope for the best. 

Berg lays out the action sequences effectively. This is rapid-fire filmmaking but you never get the sense you're missing anything. The director's use of steadicam is in contrast to the handheld visuals of recent war films like Captain Phillips or The Hurt Locker. But it doesn't ruin the reality of the moment. The stunt, makeup, and sound work is admirable. Bones crunch and cuts bleed.

Based on Luttrell's real-life memoir, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10, the film falters a bit, giving each hero his own special send-off until only Luttrell is left. Berg resorts to slow-motion and a manipulative score when the end arrives for each SEAL. It's a particularly Hollywood way to spin soldiers' deaths, especially ones filled with such dirt and pain.

Berg, who also wrote the script, never explains Luttrell's salvation. Reserved to die, he's rescued by an Afghan villager who shelters him under the code of Pashtunwali, a Pashtun law that, among other things, protects strangers or guests. It's mentioned after the film ends with a title card, but such a fascinating philosophy would seem to warrant more screen time. Luttrell's military-obsessed youth was also left on the cutting room floor, making the title character no better or worse than his teammates. It ensures a spoiler-free ending for those who don't know the story, but it robs the film of something it needs to take it to the next emotional level: heart, an idea also missing from Berg's 2007 foray into military realism, The Kingdom.

The lack of characterization hurts Lone Survivor as an emotional drama, but not as a morally-complicated military thriller. Berg's film gets the action right, but he also treads on unstable ground. Why didn't these guys have a better contingency plan in case of compromise? Who writes the bogus "Rules of Engagement" anyways? Why aren't communications more fail-safe when in the hands of our best and brightest? Hindsight is a luxury in war and Lone Survivor doesn't bother offering any answers. It presents the truth as it happened and we're left to speculate why.

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