War movies have long been a staple of Hollywood, and the past few decades have seen them get better and stronger and darker, placing audiences right in the gritty thrall of battle. Think of, in chronological order, "Apocalypse Now" (1979), "Platoon" (1986), "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), "Black Hawk Down" (2001) and "We Were Soldiers" (2002).
War movies have long been a staple of Hollywood, and the past few decades have seen them get better and stronger and darker, placing audiences right in the gritty thrall of battle. Think of, in chronological order, “Apocalypse Now” (1979), “Platoon” (1986), “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), “Black Hawk Down” (2001) and “We Were Soldiers” (2002).
Now conjure up the visceral cinematic power of two of those – “Private Ryan” and “Black Hawk” – and you’ll have some idea of where “Lone Survivor” is going to take you. But you still won’t be prepared for how hard it hits.
OK, the title does kind of give away the ending. There’s only one survivor in this mostly true tale of a 2005 military operation in Afghanistan that went horribly wrong. But even knowing that, you’ll still be gripping your chair arms all the way through.
It’s based on the 2007 memoir of the same title by Marcus Luttrell, the last man standing out of a group of four U.S. Navy SEALs who were sent to the Afghani-Pakistani border to capture or take out a specific al Qaeda leader. The book is split into three parts: SEALs training, the brutal event that led to the demise of three members of that American team and how Luttrell made it out of those deadly mountains.
Remarkably (and I don’t offer this praise up very often), the film is much better than the book, for a number of reasons. The training section, which takes up the first third of the book, is fascinating for a while, but it goes on too long. The film relegates the action on all of those pages to only the film’s opening credits. Writer-director Peter Berg (who directed “Friday Night Lights” and “Hancock”) trims it down just right to show all you have to see to understand the degree of fighting shape these guys have reached. He then gives about three-quarters of the film to the incidents that lead up to and include the vicious battle between our four heroes (Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster) and hundreds of heavily armed Taliban fighters, and closes things off with a tense denouement that’s a little confusing while watching, but is fully explained in the end credits.
This isn’t the kind of film that features nuanced performances, but the quartet of actors in the leads do give very strong, easily understood portrayals of what it’s like to be critical parts of a team, and make clear the meaning of the word camaraderie. They are absolutely four musketeers, living by the SEALs code of getting the job done by taking care of each other while doing it. Well before they find themselves in a heap of trouble, they’re presented as a working, fighting unit. When all hell breaks out around them, and they realize they’re vastly outnumbered by the bad guys, nothing in their collective attitude changes, even as their bodies are being ripped through by bullets.
But that kind of brutality isn’t the only trouble they face; there’s also the geography. They may be well trained, but the Taliban fighters know the mountains and woods much better. The book describes in detail what happens when men on the run – yes, the SEALs are trying to get away from the endless masses of gun- and rocket shooters – come to the edges of cliffs and have nowhere to go but down. Let’s hear it for the stuntmen who have brought those written sequences to life on the screen. I used the word “visceral” up top, but that doesn’t even begin to describe the awful thrill of seeing men on the screen tumbling down rock faces in close-up, or hearing them come to crashing, thudding stops against boulders and trees and the ground below. Anyone watching this will experience a great deal of wincing.
One of the best moves in adapting “Lone Survivor” from first-person book to film was the decision to leave out Luttrell’s repetitive barrage of nasty comments against what he termed members of “the liberal media” who, he claimed, were constantly putting down the men of our armed forces. In reading the book, it seemed that he was misguidedly referring to comments made by protestors – not the media – back in the days of Vietnam, well before he was born, and his tirades got in the way of the book’s effectiveness. No matter, the resulting film is a great example of what happens when a filmmaker is given a book to adapt and somehow knows exactly what to leave in and leave out.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written and directed by Peter Berg
With Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster