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Movie Review: 'Lone Survivor' (2013) Starring Mark Wahlberg

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The story behind the failed military mission Operation Red Wings is undeniably intriguing in both the decisions made by the soldiers and the resulting tale of perseverance. With the actual Navy SEAL involved acting as consultant on the film adaptation, “Lone Survivor,” offers a level of intensity and gritty realism not generally seen in Hollywood. For all its authenticity, however, several of the storytelling techniques hinder the pacing and the impact, from tension-diffusing flash-forwards to oddly juxtaposed expositional segments. Even the epilogue dismisses relevant information in favor of candid photographs. Once the moral dilemmas segue into chaotic firefights, “Lone Survivor” barrels towards its thrilling conclusion with a rip-roaring amalgamation of spirit, resilience, and violence.

Tasked with reconnaissance and surveillance to confirm the location of terrorist Ahmad Shah, four Navy SEALs fly into Afghanistan for Operation Red Wings. After quickly locating their target in a remote village, Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Matt Axelson (Ben Foster), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and team leader Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) find themselves unable to report in due to faulty communications equipment. When a group of goat herders happen upon the scouts, Murphy decides to let them go, resulting in Shah’s men ambushing the soldiers. Cornered, outnumbered, and outgunned, the four SEALs must make a last ditch attempt to reach higher ground and call for air support.

Undeniably tense, gripping, graphic, grim, and nerve-wracking, “Lone Survivor” is an authentically portrayed, realistically realized vision of the Afghanistan War with a hellishly close point of view, made even more dizzying through sniper scope cameras, slow motion, deafening sound effects, and sequences of unnerving silence. At times it rivals the intensity of “Saving Private Ryan” and “Black Hawk Down.” But it’s also infuriating as it depicts a situation that seems plagued with unpreparedness and egregious errors. Despite all of the training and discipline, the catalyst for the catastrophic gunplay is uncertainty in the face of warfare.

Moral dilemmas, while usually a thought-provoking or controversial topic, lead to the one decision that shouldn’t have been selected. In the context of the film, three choices are presented; there were at least 3-4 other options that were never explored or genuinely considered and the ultimate release of the prisoners resulted directly in the deaths of a considerable amount of soldiers. Conflicted opinions on the value of human life and acceptable sacrifices merge with insufficient communications gear and a substantive lack of numbers. Apparently the rules of engagement were not made perfectly clear to the reconnaissance team (despite training for nearly every other death-defying scenario).

It’s based on a true story, but it’s certainly not common knowledge. Luttrell’s miraculous survival and rescue, alongside indescribably formidable comrades, could have been infinitely more thrilling had it not been spoiled from the start by the movie’s title. Not only is his outcome already spelled out for audiences, but the editing, which starts at the end for a few minutes before plastering “3 Days Earlier” on the screen, is entirely unnecessary and repetitive. Luttrell narrates the opening and closing shots, further betraying his end result, while his fellow SEALs’ conclusions are given away as well. A couple of surprises make their way into the script, but the name “Lone Survivor” says far too much.

Similarly, while the ethical code of Pashtunwali is briefly explained via coda, nothing is said of Shah’s eventual death or the disruption of Anti-Coalition Militia activities. There is also no mention of Operation Whalers, which essentially picked up where Red Wings failed. Nonetheless, the sustained scenes of unrelenting combat are riveting and eye-opening, building up anticipation as complications slowly arise – before all hell breaks loose and a shocking tragedy is brutally visualized.

- The Massie Twins

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