MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Lone Survivor’ is not just another war film

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First Posted: 1/13/2014

Thanks to years of movies and TV coverage revealing every truth about the United States’ ongoing involvement in the Middle East, we know war is a constantly growing ideological monster while bravery and heroism get lost in the shuffle. Or become safe words for teachers and parents. Writer/director Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” is a simple and effective reminder that as the world grows more complicated, the qualities that define a hero remain immutable.

The movie tells the true story of four Navy SEALs (played by the hirsute quartet of Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster) sent into the mountains of Afghanistan in 2005 to eliminate a high-ranking member of Al-Qaeda. The mission progresses as expected. Then everything unravels. The men are discovered, prompting an angry response from the nearby village’s Taliban. Suddenly, the Americans are outgunned, outmanned, and without a way to get help.

They keep fighting through relentless gunfire and blown-off fingers and endless tumbles down the rocky terrain, where their limbs pinball against boulders and tree trunks. From the “How the hell are they going to get out of this?” viewpoint, “Lone Survivor” is riveting, until you remember that this actually happened. Then it becomes a sobering experience. At least it did for me.

Here are four physically and emotionally exhausted men doing things that you and I cannot — or will not — do while exhibiting selflessness that I can’t imagine summoning. Berg just presents the action. What we witness is not offered as a social commentary or a requirement for being a good citizen. It’s men doing their jobs. We can relate to that.

Occasionally, Berg cannot maintain the stoicism required. The military drum roll in the score, the opening video feature, and the concluding pictorial tribute are straight from the Steven Spielberg School of Hokey. The performances, all appropriately utilitarian, bring us back to Earth. Kitsch (“John Carter”) is fine shouting commands and firing guns; Wahlberg is essentially playing the same role he did in “Three Kings” but without the moral baggage. And it’s wonderful to see Foster and Hirsch, who have been doing great work in smallish projects (“Killer Joe,” “360”) for years, get a nice big, stage.

Every actor appears to operate under the knowledge that this isn’t about getting a star turn, but telling the story of four men doing whatever it takes to live and fight on. “Lone Survivor” is a stirring tale of bravery whose only agenda is to inspire. That may sound a little too simple, but it’s more than enough — especially now.

Note: “Lone Survivor” isn’t the only Oscar hopeful that enjoyed a wider release this past weekend. Spike Jonze’s touching, beautifully acted meditation on love and technology, “Her,” stars Joaquin Phoenix as a mopey divorcé who falls for his computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Feel free to skip “August: Osage County,” based on Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which consists of an all-star cast (headlined by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts) screaming at each other between a string of increasingly aggravating, country-fried crises.

Rating: W W W W

-To read more of Pete’s cinematic musings, please follow him on Twitter, @PeteCroatto.