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Movie review: 'Lone Survivor' honors fallen heroes with a worthy film experience

Lone Survivor

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LONE SURVIVOR-- 4 STARS

Director Peter Berg at the premiere of his new film "Lone Survivor."
Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Especially in the cases of movies based on true stories, we too often play "armchair quarterback." We think we know the truth or can spot a lie when, very likely, we weren't part of the actual events. We call out movies for their believability and realism on two ends of a spectrum. On one end, we accuse them of exaggerating and stretching the truth of a real story. Our answer for that is a dismissive "come on" and "no way." On the other hand, we will chastise them for being sanitized, sugarcoated, and not real enough when necessary. For those, we still answer with a different, but similar "come on" and "no way."

No matter what, the middle ground between those two ends lands squarely in the realm of fiction because, in the end, we are watching a two-hour movie, not the real thing. This is where things get difficult in terms of taste and execution by the film itself. What movie tone plays too somber? What tone plays too celebratory? What tone is too glorifying or too heroic? What is accurate and what is not? Where does dramatization and movie cliche invade or take over? Whether it's Lee Daniel's The Butler or Remember the Titans and everything in between, the answer to those questions change with each movie and example and speak to a movie's effectiveness to convey its story successfully.

The latest film to test those limits is Lone Survivor from director Peter Berg. It is based on the 2007 nonfiction book Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Red Wing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 written by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and his ghost writer Patrick Robinson. The book and the film cover the failed June 25, 2005 mission to capture or kill a high-ranking Taliban leader and the ensuing survival story that followed. Brimming with patriotism, camaraderie, honor, and plenty of Hollywood showmanship, Lone Survivor definitely pushes those aforementioned boundaries and questions in both directions.

The story takes place during the ongoing War in Afghanistan. Coordinated by Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana, back in Black Hawk Down territory), a four-man team lead by Lieutenant Michael Murphy (prior Berg collaborator Taylor Kitsch from Battleship) and consisting of special operatives Danny Dietz (Into the Wild's Emile Hirsch), Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster of 3:10 to Yuma), and Marcus Luttrell (lead star Mark Wahlberg) are dropped into the Sawtalo Sar mountain valley in the Pech district of the Kunar province. Their target is Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. Intelligence tells them to expect a nearly empty village where Shah is holding up, but finds a substantial force instead. When they are discovered and their operation is compromised, the difficulty of their escape and attempted rescue triggers a four-hour gunfight against rugged terrain and staggering odds.

Lone Survivor writer and director Peter Berg, known to most audiences as the hit-or-miss director of Hancock, Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom, The Rundown, and Battleship, was granted expansive access by the United States Navy and operation reports and details. He also spent a month embedded with an active duty SEAL team in Iraq, something no civilian has ever done. Luttrell himself moved into Berg's home for a month and was one of many technical advisers to the production and filming. Needless to say, from an information standpoint in drawing directly from Luttrell's first-person facts and accounts, this film did its homework and strives to be as authentic and accurate as possible. This impressive effort truly comes through in the layers of military operations and details on display. That answers the questions of believability and truth to some degree.

The other half of the challenge for Lone Survivor comes from being constructed as the action epic it represents. The film is extremely heavy on the action sequences and glazes over characterization. This is where the pendulum begins to swing for those dramatization questions of how much of this is a macho movie with cliches and how much of this is exaggerated for showing off for entertainment's sake. Some critics have called this film heavy-handed and even "war porn of the highest order." Make no mistake. This film is as brutal and unrelenting as advertised. It's arguably the best pure combat movie experience since Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down from 2001. That's saying something for sure, but that's also a possible deterrent for others. Peter Berg is no stranger to staging compelling action and the stunt work is phenomenal. His use of realistic digital cinematography gives Lone Survivor a palpable realism.

Personally, I think Lone Survivor does enough to keep that balance between dramatization and spectacle reasonably close to a respectable and respectful center, considering the subject matter. I think the bloodiness is matched fairly equally by the necessary reverence. Remember, these aren't shivering draftees fresh from basic training sent to some front line. These are Navy SEALS. They are among the highest trained fighters in the world. Their honor and fortitude outweighs their morality and fear. In order to represent and convey men of strong resolve and razor focus such as this, you're going to get a movie that acts the very same way. The moments of weakness are going to be at an absolute minimum compared the average soldier's story. It's going to shoot and ask questions later. I can completely respect and compliment that quality.

At the same time, these four men were still husbands, fathers, and sons. Lone Survivor does not forget to convey their humanity when necessary. I think a big ingredient to that tone is the ever-present symphonic instrumental guitar score created by the collaboration between rock band Explosions in the Sky and composer Steve Jablonsky. Their chords permeate the fast and still moments of the film with a subtle, yet noticeable pulse instead of a loud, stock brassy and drum-filled military soundtrack we've heard hundreds of times in both lesser and greater other films. That's one cliche it completely ignores. Berg employed the band in the same capacity to great effect on his smooth high school football film Friday Night Lights. It's probably the most perfect marriage of a movie soundtrack and tone-setting this side of Arcade Fire's work in Her.

The four lead actors do enough, in my opinion, to give their characters personalities in a relatively short amount of time and share strong chemistry as a team. All of them perform admirably themselves under fire as credible action performers, particularly Ben Foster and Taylor Kitsch. The film does have its elements of occasionally thick hero worship and forced upon hate of the mostly faceless bad guys. Some of that can feel a shade gaudy and glorifying in its moments and context. For as graphic as it can get, I can't label it obscene or perverse. Once again, I think Lone Survivor does more than enough to honor these fallen soldiers, tell their story with accurate heroism, speak to the greater mission, and still be packaged as an approachable and worthy movie experience.

Lone Survivor opens nationwide across the Chicagoland area this Friday, January 10th.

LESSON #1: THE SCENARIO WHERE A TEAM COMES BEFORE THE INDIVIDUAL-- This lesson echoes the substantial measures of sacrifice, brotherhood, and commitment found in Navy SEALs. Director Peter Berg puts it better than I can in his production notes, so I will quote him and let him nail it: "This story is about working together for something bigger than our ego, bigger than our individuality, It’s about coming together as a group—protecting each other, loving each other, looking out for each other—and finding a greater strength as a team than you could ever find as an individual."

LESSON #2: THE AFGHAN CODE OF PASHTUNWALI-- The third act of this film is a survival story for Marcus Luttrell when he is wounded and rescued by Afghan Pashtun villagers. They provided him safe haven for several days until his rescue. The non-Taliban Pashtun believe in an unwritten ethical code and lifestyle known as "pashtunwali." The main principles include hospitality, asylum, justice, bravery, righteousness, and honor to protect the weak and stand their ground. Their protection of a complete stranger saved that man's life. It is a debt that Luttrell has never forgotten.

LESSON #3: YOU ARE NEVER OUT OF THE FIGHT-- This, at least in the movie, is the Navy SEAL Team 10 mantra. As I described earlier, these men are not the quitting kind. They are the fight-to-the-death kind. They will bite, scratch, and claw to protect each other over themselves and never quit a fight. This is a level of heroism, valor, and dedication that most of us can't ever picture ourselves in, which makes this story all the more important to witness and be thankful for towards the men and women that put themselves in harm's way for our defense and freedom.