"Lone Survivor" should have been a movie, impossible to screw up in execution. Based on the true-life events of Marcus Luttrell (played without distinction by Mark Wahlberg), the titular lone survivor of Operation Red Wings, a 2005 mission by a team of Navy SEALs to eliminate a top Taliban leader in the heart of the Afghanistan countryside. Based on the novel of the same name, if Luttrell's experiences in Afghanistan weren't incredibly harrowing enough, it's perhaps the story of his post-war experiences that remain firmly seared into my brain, but that's not the focus of this film. While "Lone Survivor" focuses specifically on the events leading up to and the ultimate execution of Operation Red Wings, what it doesn't focus on is telling a story without resorting to tired jingoistic film tactics, instead offering viewers a tedious two-hour action film designed to manipulate the emotions of the audience based solely on the basis of it's based in reality origins.
Directed by Peter Berg, "Lone Survivor" trots out every tired military cliché from the opening sequences mixing real footage of Navy SEAL training before introducing us to our initial band of soldiers, Luttrell, Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster). Berg's script does little to distinguish these characters from any other modern war film and when comparing it to wholly fictional, "Hurt Locker," at minimum, one can't help but shake their head at how real men who gave their lives for their countries are shallow shadows when compared to fictionalized counterparts in an action film using the same setting (the War on Terror) as a backdrop. Berg shows mediocre skill as a screenwriter, making one wonder if the tightly effective "Friday Night Lights" was a fluke. To his credit as a director, "Lone Survivor" becomes fully engaging once we get into the actual execution of Operation Red Wings, but the lingering feeling that real-life is being exploited as the film evolves into an earnestly taut action outing is unable to be shaken.
Berg's action direction is top-notch and he paints a very distinct portrait of a very different war. The buildup to the initial conflict is filled with its share of moments that you might easily find yourself holding your breath at; namely a memorable sniper sequence that quickly devolves into a disorienting shootout that puts our heroes in mortal peril. As injuries amongst the squad mount, Berg quickly unravels his film by resorting to the first of many clichés, including, but not limited to dramatic slow-motion executions of supporting characters and equally slow-motion sequences of heroic final charges. I don't argue whether these events occurred, but I do argue that the way Berg chooses to dramatically adapt them is cloying and throws away the opportunity to tell a raw and real story just for the chance to pull at heartstrings and leave audiences with an incredibly familiar war film.
The second half of "Lone Survivor" then saddles the acting burden firmly on the mediocre shoulders of Mark Wahlberg who is easily the weakest link in the cast (Ben Foster's supporting role as Axelson is most memorable and the closest to a flesh and blood human performance in the film). Wahlberg brings his trademark idiosyncrasies to the film and the combination of his inconsistent performance with a final hour that needed some judicious editing really make Berg's ham-fisted, obvious moral of the story a tough slog to make it through. In a final act of well-intended tribute that ultimately feels somewhat like audience manipulation, photos of every real soldier to lose their lives in both Operation Red Wings and a failed rescue attempt are shown backed by a mediocre cover of "Heroes" by Peter Gabriel. It's arguably the most difficult moment of the movie as it puts one in the uncomfortable seat of having to admit that the real noble sacrifice of 19 men was reduced to two hours and one-minute of marginal filmmaking. "Lone Survivor" misses the mark, plain and simple, winding up as a generally forgettable action piece, when instead it should have, at minimum, given viewers a snapshot of four men, doing a harrowing job because they felt to answer a call to service; that was the film I was hoping to see and the film audiences deserved. Rent It.