Thursday, January 9, 2014

Film Review - Lone Survivor

Beginning with an excellent montage of the incredible mental and physical requirements needed to pass Navy SEAL training. Peter Berg brings the audience quickly into world of the Navy SEAL frogmen. The opening images show candidates pushing themselves to beyond human levels testing for endurance, strength and mental toughness that forces many a candidate to ring the washout bell three times admitting that they quit.  The montage ends with the overwhelming happiness and joy of those that succeed and pass the training armed with the knowledge that they are officially frogmen part of a tradition dating back to 1942.

Lone Survivor focuses on the failed Navy SEAL June 2005 Red Wings Operation. The plan: send in a four man team to assassinate Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd who is known to be in an Afghanistan village surrounded by mountains, dense forest and rock. The team consisted of Petty Officer Second Class Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) on point.  Lieutenant Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) 2nd, Petty Office Second Class Danny Kietz (Emile Hirsch) communications and Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wallberg) rear and medical. Commander Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) oversaw the mission. The rules of engagement are outlined in the mission brief along with the unique names for the wait points cumulating with the code name for eyes on the main target.

Berg does an excellent job with the opening portion of the film. Introducing the main characters quickly, building each characters back-story simply and explaining the mission concisely. Within the first half hour the audience knows all of the main players and are invested in their fates. The dialogue and interplay amongst the SEAL team is entertaining especially how most of the team members seem to have a woman back home who despite being thousand of miles away clearly has the upper hand in each and every relationship.

The film features a sharp script. Marcus Luttrell has a writing credit for the film since the movie is based on his book. As noted before the screenplay builds a deep relationship between the main characters easily and does an excellent job of raising the tension throughout the piece despite the fact that the viewer going in knows how things are going to end.

Shot mainly with hand held camera the piece gives the impression that the viewers is embedded with the recon team. The camera follows in close as the team moves across the rugged terrain after they are first deployed switching to close in headshots as team members take up positions at the various waiting points. The shooting style changes to slow moving two camera close ups of the team and shepherds who wander across a waiting position as they decide what they are going to do and how that decision will effect the fate of the mission and untimely themselves.

As in every military film the sound unit is key. The crew for this production did a remarkable job.  Starting with the presentation of the transportation vehicles Black Hawk, Apache and Chinooks Helicopters the group produced authentic sounds for the blades and engines.  The crackling sounds over the airways in field and base also rings true.  The highlight of the work of the sound department is during the gun battles. The concussion explosions of RPG rocket fire are only outdone by the buzzing of bullets back and forth between the opposing forces that only halt when one finds its target with a thud. The film has the best presentation of criss crossing bullets since Saving Private Ryan.

The makeup team on this feature were superb.  At the start of the gunfight the squad is in peak physical condition. As the battle continues they take hits from the enemy each becoming bruised and battered by the battle and the ruff mountanous terrain to varying degrees. Through the use of makeup Berg is able to present team the stages of abuse on each SEAL in graphic detail starting with nicks and bruises then progressing to missing chunks of flesh and catastrophic injuries. The haunting sound of weakening and interrupted breathing of from group also add to the reality of the presentation. As the injuries mount the squad members each have to struggle to draw singular obstructed breaths that become increasingly shallow and gut wrenching to hear as the action progresses.

The cast performs very well in their roles. Taylor Kitsch falls easily into the role of the leader and star of a group as he has done several times in the past on film. Ben Foster is also strong as Matthew Axe Axelson the glue of the team especially when he presents a very strong argument on what to do with the shepherds and again when he continues to dive headlong into the fight despite being the first one in the troop injured then later showing extreme evidence of severe injury as the firefight intensifies. Mark Wahlberg is solid as the lead character arguing hard and contrary to Foster on the fate of the shepherds and is very believable upon entering survival mode. Alexander Ludwig is notable as Shane Patton the newest recruit to the Company. He has to do all of the rookie tasks, is constantly ridden by the rest of the group but does an outstanding job reciting The Ballad of the Frogman.

Lone Survivor is a superior war film. The writing, directing and acting brings the viewer into the world of a Navy SEAL team. The politics of why they are in the region is not discussed. Rather the focus is on how far an individual can push themselves and continue to fight despite numbers, tactical disadvantages and devastating injuries. In recent screen outings the SEAL team usually shows up somewhere in the third act as faceless, nameless blunt force instruments. Here they are given depth, context and individual personalities. Director Peter Berg set out to make a film to honour the participants of Operation Red Wings. After viewing the completed product he has completed his goal. Lone Survivor is a film I can definitely recommend.

*** 1/2  Out of 4

Lone Survivor | Peter Berg | U.S.A. | 2013 | 121 Minutes.

Tags: Operation Red Wings, Navy SEAL's, Frogman, Marcus Luttrell, Michael P. Murphy, Taliban, Ahmad Shah, Gun Battle, Pech District, Kunar Province, Afghanistan, K.I.A, RPG's.

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