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Lone Survivor Review: Misguided Greatness
There’s a truly great war drama hidden somewhere deep within the fibers of Lone Survivor. We see flashes of it when the film is at is best, exuding brilliance and telling a gritty, real-life tale with all the moral juxtapositions intact. But more often than not, the film’s desire to be an action drama gets in its own way, and a clunky script coupled with action set pieces ripped straight out of an 80’s film make Lone Survivor into an awkward mess with a clumsy beginning and stunning end.
Based on true events, Lone Survivor details the covert mission of Marcus Luttrell and his Navy S.E.A.L. team as they try to capture or kill a Taliban operative in Afghanistan. When they are discovered hiding out in the mountains, the men are faced with a grueling decision: follow the rules of engagement and release their captives, or risk breaking the agreement and kill them to not be discovered. When the decision is made to free them and abandon the mission, the four men find themselves in a fight for their lives on the mountain range.
Because the ending to the story is eluded to in the film’s title, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that only Luttrell survives the onslaught, making this a story more about how he is rescued than how he survives. It’s because of this knowledge that the film loses some of its tension, being that we know he survives no matter what catastrophic events befall him. It may seem petty to point this out as a problem, but many other films based on real life events with known endings have used tension to a much greater effect than that of Lone Survivor.
Perhaps this is due to the script being a second rate work that failed to build the men of the S.E.A.L. team into actual characters with which we could relate. Scant attempts are made early on in the film to explore the men’s personal lives, but the film’s insistence on getting them out into the battlefield as soon as possible made it difficult for meaningful characterization to take place. The result is a group of men whose names are unfamiliar and whose deaths are unfortunately not all that dramatic, emotional, or resonant.
The script’s problems don’t stop there. Dialogue is needlessly harsh, lacks substance, and is used to deliver some of the most heavy-handed sequences in the film. When faced with the decision to free their captives or kill them, the ensuing conversation plays out like a dialogue choice in a video game, with one side calling for freedom while the other yells and screams about rules of engagement while waiting for the squad leader to make a decision. There’s no thoughtfulness or fragility given to this pivotal moment, and being that it’s one of the most important pieces of the entire plot, the failure to convey the truly delicate nature of this situation is one of the film’s most painful transgressions.
The most confusing and disorienting part of the film’s nature, however, is its insistence to be both a thoughtful war drama and an action film. This might have worked had a good mix been found between the two, but instead we’re treated to jagged moments in between the drama of slow motion, big explosions, multiple times when calm dialogue is disrupted by jump-scare-like assaults, and gratuitous injuries that try to drive home how nightmarish of a situation these men were in, but often feel too close to shocking body horror to have any humbling effect. It wants to be patriotic, it wants to be reverent of the sacrifices these men made, and it really, really wants you to know how bad things were for SEAL Team 10. But it does so in some of the most heavy-handed ways that don’t ever give us a true sense of the camaraderie between the four men and their devotion to their cause, making it feel self-indulgent and idealistic at its worst.
It’s once Marcus is the only one left alive, however, that the film actually begins to realize its full potential and harness tension to great effect. When reaching the small Afghani village and watching as Marcus deals with the aftermath of his situation, we begin to realize the fragile political state of the region and feel some human connection with Luttrell’s noble rescuers within the village. He may be considered a side character, but the most compelling character in the entire film was Luttrell’s Afghani rescuer. Seeing his compassion and willingness to help a stranger lent the film a much-needed human angle the film would have done better to harness early on.
Script issues aside, the actual technical execution of Lone Survivor is its outstanding achievement. A stunning collection of long establishing shots, extreme close ups, unique angles, and even certain action sequences made for a visually compelling film that conveyed a gritty sense of realism to much of the events portrayed on screen. Sound design was even better than the visuals, and gave each gunshot a punching finality, each death a quiet, dramatic flair, and several action moments a disorienting and empathetic feel. Matt Axelson’s death scene in particular was one of the most audibly striking, with an effect that faded out all ambient noise, leaving the audience with nothing but the uncomfortable and tense sound of his strained breathing and death rattle. The use of inventive sound in this instance made it the most resonant of the death sequences in the entire film.
It’s clear from the start that director Peter Berg truly idolizes and respects these men and wants to tell their story in the most realistic way possible. And to say the film was bad doesn’t truly sum up its overall quality. At times, it’s a fantastic film that expertly speaks to the humanity of all those involved in the story. But when it attempts to entertain audiences in the more intense action sequences, many of the choices to convey action play out like an 80’s action film in the same vein as classic Schwartzenegger. It’s this odd and awkward approach that makes Lone Survivor feel unsure of what it wants to say, and although the ending of the film achieves its intent on being sobering and emotional, a clunky and misguided first two acts combined with a strong final third makes Lone Survivor an odd mess that gets in the way of its own message of patriotism and sacrifice.