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Review: Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor (2013)

Directed by: Peter Berg

Premise: Based on a true story, a group of US Navy SEALs patrol the mountains of Afghanistan and end up in a firefight with Taliban forces.

What Works: Despite the fact that the war in Afghanistan has gone on for over a decade, very few films, and fewer still from Hollywood, have dealt with the topic. That alone distinguishes Lone Survivor but regardless of that, this is a very well executed piece of work. Lone Survivor was directed by Peter Berg, who had previously directed the feature films The Kingdom and Friday Night Lights. Both of those pictures were excellently crafted and same is true of Lone Survivor. As in Berg’s other films, the movie is simultaneously beautiful and ugly. The picture is terrifically shot with vibrant imagery but at the same time it unsparingly catalogues the horrors of war and the toll of combat on the human body. Another motif of Berg’s filmmaking that is repeated here is the portrayal of masculine spaces and subcultures. Friday Night Lights both portrayed and critiqued the culture of high school football and provided a nuanced look at young men operating inside of that culture. Lone Survivor does the same, although to a lesser extent, in portraying life amid Navy SEALs, and the picture has a great deal of authenticity. The second half of Lone Survivor is the more interesting portion of the film and the portrayal of combat is furious, gritty, and generally unsentimental. This isn’t a movie about the politics of why the United States is in Afghanistan; that is beyond the scope of the picture. Rather, the filmmakers intend to create an authentic portrayal of modern warfare and on that measure they succeed. Another notable aspect of Lone Survivor is its nuanced portrayal of the people of Afghanistan. Although the war is portrayed from the point of view of American soldiers, the filmmakers allow the Afghanis to be more than just caricatures. Especially notable is the distinction the filmmakers allow between Afghani citizens and Taliban fighters, a distinction that is rarely emphasized in the discourse about the war.

What Doesn’t: Ridley Scott’s 2002 war picture Black Hawk Down, which dramatized a disastrous US Army operation in Somalia, has emerged as the single most influential post-9/11 war film and echoes of that picture can be found in everything from Zero Dark Thirty to Rambo to Battle Los Angeles. The influence of Black Hawk Down is felt very strongly in Lone Survivor and the new film recalls both Black Hawk Down’s strengths and its weaknesses. Like Ridley Scott’s film, Lone Survivor is successful as a visceral experience but narratively and thematically it is very thin. The story can essentially be divided into three parts: the time spent at the base, the battle on the mountainside, and the final conflict in an Afghani village. The first half of the film takes place at the base but not very much happens and the filmmakers do not characterize the four SEALs effectively. The soldiers do not stand out as distinctive characters and the tropes used to characterize them come across as clichés of the war genre. When Lone Survivor finally gets to the combat, it is both frightening and exciting but there isn’t much to the film beyond a superficial level. Viewers are unlikely to come away from Lone Survivor with new insights about the war in Afghanistan or modern warfare in general. One of the outstanding qualities of Lone Survivor is how unsentimental it is but the film goes awry when it betrays the harder edge of the rest of the movie. The film begins with a montage of footage of Navy SEAL training and it ends with an extended sequence of stills of the men lost in the operation dramatized in the picture. These sequences are unnecessary, they go on for too long, and the schmaltziness undermines the best aspects of the movie.

Bottom Line: Lone Survivor is held back from greatness because of its deference to war film clichés but it is a solid combat film and the filmmakers accomplished what they set out to do, which is to create a portrayal of modern warfare. In time this may be the Hollywood film that we associate with the Afghanistan war in much the same way that Platoon is associated with Vietnam. 

Episode: #474 (January 19, 2014)