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War on Terror Up Close

Lone Survivor pays brutal tribute to fallen soldiers but fails in storytelling

Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor
Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor. Photo by Gregory E. Peters/Universal Pictures
Emile Hirsch and Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor
Emile Hirsch and Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor. Photo by Gregory E. Peters/Universal Pictures
Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch in Lone Survivor
Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch in Lone Survivor. Photo by Gregory E. Peters/Universal Pictures

There have been a number of movies about the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, but surprisingly few have dealt with actual soldiers on the ground. In fact, most focused on politics or the impact the war has had on returning soldiers.

Writer/director Peter Berg has bucked that trend with Lone Survivor, an account of the real-life deadly firefight involving Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and three of his comrades. Luttrell, Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) were tasked in 2005 with a mission to capture or kill Ahmad Shahd, a Taliban leader.

 The film recounts a real-life deadly firefight in 2005 to capture a Taliban leader named Ahmad Shahd.

As is often the case, the mission did not go exactly as planned. The four soldiers found themselves fighting for their lives on a rugged Afghani mountainside.

With dwindling resources, a lack of communication with possible rescuers and a seemingly never-ending supply of enemy combatants, their odds of escaping the situation were slim-to-none.

In a film like this, where the ending is foretold by the title itself, how effective it is depends on the care taken with the story. You want to be respectful of these soldiers’ memories but remain honest about what went wrong.

It’s a fine line that Berg manages to tread relatively well. Most key moments are allowed to play out without any over-dramatization, while the horrors Berg shows the soldiers experiencing during the battle are as detailed and brutal as anything in recent memory, probably going back to Saving Private Ryan.

But where Berg doesn’t succeed is in making the audience understand why the four soldiers were in that situation in the first place. Scenes leading up to them being on the mountainside make it seem as if the team of SEALs was going to be bigger or at least include more support than they had. The technical details involving the military are thrown out in a fast and furious manner, with little effort made to explain anything sufficiently.

Ultimately, the film rests on the abilities of the four main actors. Wahlberg is good, but things might have been a bit better if he had switched roles with Kitsch, who has a bit more presence. Both Hirsch and Foster are great, delivering on the promise they made with previous award-worthy performances.

There’s little that’s uplifting about Lone Survivor, and Berg could have made the whole process a bit clearer. But as a tribute to the ultimate sacrifice of brave soldiers, it more than works.

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