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Movie review: 'Lone Survivor' makes audience feel the sting of combat

Published January 10, 2014 8:44 am

Review • Battle scenes have a visceral power in this drama.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The title of the combat drama "Lone Survivor" serves as a built-in spoiler alert — yes, many of the people depicted don't make it to the final credits — but it's by design.

It's a constant reminder of this film's central message, that American troops face life-and-death decisions in battle, and when even one decision goes badly, the consequences are deadly.

Writer-director Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights") tells the story of Operation Red Wings, a Navy SEALs operation in Afghanistan in June 2005. The action centers on a four-man SEAL team inserted near an Afghan village, with a goal of targeting a Taliban warlord operating there.

The four — Lt. Michael Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch), commanding enlisted men Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) — take up their observing position in the mountains, but are soon discovered by local goatherds. Murphy, judging the villagers to be civilians, must — by the rules of engagement — let them go. The SEALs retreat to a safer spot, but it's only a matter of time before Taliban gunmen ambush the Americans with guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Berg (who adapted Luttrell's memoir of the incident) depicts the combat action with a you-are-there intensity. The combination of rapid-fire editing and immersive sound design makes you feel every bullet as it whizzes past.

Less successful are the early scenes in which Berg dutifully chronicles the home life of each of the men. There also are obligatory scenes dwelling on the camaraderie the men share with their commander (Eric Bana) and their fellow SEALS — culminating in a friendly razzing of a newbie (Alexander Ludwig) who's eager to see action. Those moments may be true to Luttrell's view of events, and to Berg's view of military cohesion, but they come off as phony sentimentality.

The power of "Lone Survivor" comes from the scenes in that forest, of four men fighting to stay alive and fighting to save each other. The performances, especially Foster's depiction of one battered but determined SEAL, do more to speak to what those men sacrificed in 2005 than anything the movie shows us back at the base.

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'Lone Survivor'

Gritty realistic combat scenes tell the story of a Navy SEAL mission gone wrong.

Where • Area theaters.

When • Opens Friday, Jan. 10.

Rating • R for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language.

Running time • 121 minutes.