Movie Reviews

‘Lone Survivor’ captures the hell of war | 3 stars

Updated: 2014-01-08T22:36:36Z

By DAVID FRESE

The Kansas City Star

“Lone Survivor” may be the best argument yet for drone warfare.

After seeing this grueling and violent re-enactment of a doomed mission in Afghanistan, you’ll see exactly what I mean.

“Lone Survivor” illustrates for a new generation the difficulty our young women and men face in fighting an enemy that wears no uniform, marches under no flag and calls no country home.

Based on Marcus Luttrell’s first-hand account, “Lone Survivor” follows a team of four Navy SEALs in 2005’s Operation Red Wings, charged with finding militant leader Ahmad Shah in a remote Afghan village.

Cut off from any communication in rugged mountains, the SEAL team is discovered by goat herders who may or may not be Taliban sympathizers. The Americans struggle with the decision to kill, capture or release the men, and are subsequently ambushed.

As for what happens next, well, there really can be no spoiling a movie titled “Lone Survivor.”

Peter Berg has taken Luttrell’s best-selling book and squeezed it into a two-hour movie, making a mission of several weeks appear to occur over a couple of days. In a lot of ways, the oversimplification makes sense. After all, sitting and watching troops who spend several days sitting and watching doesn’t sound like a great time at the old movie house.

At the same time, Berg’s choices occasionally sever our relationship to the characters.

The first third of the book details the SEAL training and how these men bond with one another. That whole section has been turned into a four-minute montage of what appears to be stock training footage that rolls with the title credits.

We’re instead expected to understand the men’s brilliance and courage through a few short scenes around the Bagram Airfield. Because team leader Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) seeks wedding-present advice from his friend Marcus (Mark Wahlberg), we glean he is a fighter and a lover. We’re to understand these guys are super-competitive because Murphy and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) have a miles-long all-out sprint around the base.

The scenes work fine enough, but they feel a little short, both in duration and emotional heft. Maybe it’s because even at two hours, “Lone Survivor” is a fairly economical film in an age of overdone epics. Or, admittedly, maybe it’s because Berg omitted some of my favorite parts of the book. Nonetheless, I was left wanting to know more about the characters in the film before they all got shot to hell.

And shot to hell they are. The film’s 40-minute firefight is bloody, intense and terrifying. Surrounded and outnumbered by anti-coalition militants, the SEALs are forced to retreat down the mountain, a bone-breaking endeavor at best. After they tumble several hundred feet while dodging machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades, the four limp and crawl to regroup and take cover behind a boulder.

“That sucked,” says sniper Axe (Ben Foster), in the understatement of this young millennium.

That sort of gallows humor — mixed with scenic panoramas of the Afghan mountain regions and some strong performances — keeps “Lone Survivor” from becoming a military version of “Saw”-style torture porn.

Wahlberg will sell tickets, but he isn’t the best fit for the lead. His character needs to go from supreme confidence to sheer emotional agony and terror, and it’s often apparent that any one of the other three stars could have played it better. We’ve seen that range in Hirsch in “Into the Wild,” in Foster as far back as “Six Feet Under” and, to a lesser extent, in Kitsch in “Friday Night Lights.”

Despite this casting quibble, Berg improves on the book in several ways, especially by making the troops’ situation a little less black and white than Luttrell did in his account.

And Berg brings to film audiences a difficult story about the proverbial fog of war, the gray areas of combat and our troops meeting needlessly tragic fates.

To reach David Frese, call 816-234-4463 or send email to dfrese@kcstar.com. Twitter: DavidFrese.

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