LONE SURVIVOR – Theatrical review

Writer-director Peter Berg must have paid attention to the criticism that “Zero Dark Thirty” received last year:  that there was too much behind-the-scenes drama and not enough focus on the actual SEALS who successfully raided the Osama bin Laden compound and killed the Al Qaida leader. There wasn’t as much action as audiences wanted, and not as much emphasis on the heroes who did the actual shooting as there was on the decision-makers behind the scenes and out of harm’s way.

That’s not the case with “Lone Survivor,” which opens in theaters on January 10. Berg made the conscious decision to position the film squarely in the action genre. With a #1 bestseller to work from (Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10, by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson), Berg opted to fast-forward through the hellish training that Navy SEALs undergo and get them to their mission in Afghanistan, pronto.

The result is a slam-bang action film that’s plenty realistic, with a full two-thirds devoted to the battle for survival that ensues when a mission to capture or kill a top Taliban leader goes about as wrong as any mission can go. In actuality, 19 Navy SEALS lost their lives on this mission or in the attempted rescue, and that’s no spoiler. It’s in the book.

So is a lot more character development, which is the first casualty in an action film. We don’t know as much about these people or their relationship to each other as we’d like, and band-of-brothers jingoism is as far as the character development goes. We might see them all in a title sequence training montage, but we don’t see them interact enough to make an impression. There are no flashbacks, no interior monologues, and no lead-ups to give us that information. Berg is concerned with the mission, period.

That will be a deal-breaker for some, and a delight for others. I personally think that “Lone Survivor” is a taut action-drama that in some ways is more compelling than “Zero Dark Thirty.”But if you compare it to another Afghanistan deployment film, “Restrepo” comes out on top. True as the events might be in this film, “Lone Survivor” still plays like a formulaic action film, while “Restrepo” sought to comment on what it was like to serve, and to feel the tension that every day might be your last. Same with “The Hurt Locker,” which had the added benefit of an internal conflict.

Here it’s just SEALs vs. Taliban, with a friendly village factoring into the mix. And the action in “Lone Survivor” is so spectacular that it will remind you of the old films made for action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. The difference is, this is real. Like most action films, it’s also apolitical. Their plight may hinge on a single decision, but there’s no should we be here or not, and no moral searching. These are men who are trained at the highest level to kill and their skills are mightily tested. Even a statement that can be read as political—when a village goes against the Taliban to protect one of the SEALs—is played with such understatement that you have to read the explanation in a postscript.

Unlike so many action films these days, “Lone Survivor” doesn’t rely on camera tricks. There’s a hand-held camera, sure, but it’s not so hummingbird quick or “Blair Witch Hunt” jerky that it blurs the action rather than enhancing it. You see the tracers and bullets hit, and you watch these guys’ bodies beaten by the mountain they’re trying to climb to get the hell out of there. Point-of-view filming and quick panning may remind gamers of the graphics you see in shooter games, but it’s also battle-realistic.

I’ve never been shot, but I’d have to imagine that acting like you have isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Yet, Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster are absolutely believable as real SEALS-in-distress Michael P. Murphy, Marcus Luttrell, Danny Dietz, and Matthew Axelson. If you read what happened to these guys, you’ll see that “Lone Survivor” may play like a clichéd action film, but what you see on the screen was the way it went down. Three of the four were killed that mission, as were 16 SEALS who tried to rescue them. One got a bronze statue in his hometown, another a U.S. destroyer named after him, and a third the Navy Cross. But all of them are memorialized in this film, which waves the flag enough through the end credits that you’d have to call it a patriotic action film. And a darned good one.

“Lone Survivor” is rated R for “strong bloody war violence and pervsive language.” The trailer is in the top graphic.