‘Sur­vivor’: Grip­ping tale of friend­ship, war

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY PETER SUDERMAN

Don’t ex­pect any big twists from the story in “Lone Sur­vivor.” The sad, true end­ing is spoiled in the ti­tle. The real sur­prise is the way this min­i­mal­ist mod­ern war film evolves over the course of its two-hour run­ning time: What starts out slowly, as a per­func­tory, earnest war movie about elite Navy SEALs on a mis­sion to kill a Tal­iban big­wig in Afghanistan grows un­ex­pect­edly into one of the most har­row­ing de­pic­tions of con­tem­po­rary com­bat in re­cent mem­ory — not in spite of its earnest­ness, but be­cause of it.

“Lone Sur­vivor” is an ac­tion pic­ture and a war film, but it might be best de­scribed as a band of brothers movie — about the close­ness and ca­ma­raderie among sol­diers in the field. It be­gins with a string of grainy, doc­u­men­tary clips from real-world SEAL train­ing ex­er­cises, em­pha­siz­ing the men­tal tough­ness that the job re­quires, as well as the fra­ter­nity it en­gen­ders among the few who com­plete the course.

Both are put to the test when four SEALs are sent to cap­ture or kill a par­tic­u­larly vi­o­lent Tal­iban com­man­der op­er­at­ing in the moun­tains of Afghanistan. What should be a rel­a­tively sim­ple job is com­pli­cated when the four sol­diers en­counter a group of civil­ians who are likely to be Tal­iban in­for­mants.

The movie’s first hour of­fers a se­ries of ex­hibits on the life of a de­ployed solider: Writer/di­rec­tor Peter Berg takes view­ers on a minia­ture tour of duty, of­fer­ing de­pic­tions of ac­tiv­i­ties such as mis­sion brief­ings and friendly haz­ing. Mr. Berg comes from a mil­i­tary fam­ily, and his lov­ing re-cre­ations of troop life are per­haps overly de­tailed at times. But he also of­fers some­thing rare in a star-driven ac­tion movie — an un­usu­ally faith­ful and re­spect­ful look at real-life ex­pe­ri­ences of sol­diers in the field.

Mr. Berg also uses the long open­ing to build up the char­ac­ters of the four ser­vice mem­bers at the center of the story — Michael (Tay­lor Kitsch), Danny (Emile Hirsch), Matt (Ben Fos­ter), and Mar­cus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), whose book about the mis­sion served as the ba­sis for the film. They make a close unit, and their friend­ship with one another even­tu­ally ex­tends to the au­di­ence, who be­come a sort of silent part of the team.

That makes the ex­tended bat­tle se­quence that takes up the bulk of the film’s sec­ond half all the more grip­ping, and painful, to watch. Mr. Berg’s plain, al­most jour­nal­is­tic di­rec­tion makes the movie’s first hour un­der­whelm­ing. But the same sen­si­bil­ity makes the lengthy shootout be­tween the quar­tet of SEALs and a siz­able Tal­iban force ut­terly riv­et­ing.

Sud­denly, de­tails start to mat­ter. Close-in and chaotic, the movie’s moun­tain­side siege has to rank among the most in­tense and re­al­is­tic war fights ever seen on screen. In­stead of daz­zling view­ers with im­pos­si­ble feats, Mr. Berg high­lights the tense con­fu­sion in­volved in such a bat­tle — the em­pha­sis is on cover, tar­get ac­qui­si­tion, shot place­ment and squad move­ment rather than showy vi­o­lence. It’s not about spec­ta­cle. It’s about sur­vival.

It’s also about fight­ing for one’s fel­low sol­diers. Mr. Berg’s telling of the story plays down larger po­lit­i­cal mo­ti­va­tions; once on the bat­tle­field, he seems to sug­gest, the broader causes of any war are al­ways less im­por­tant than the in­di­vid­ual lives at stake.

UNI­VER­SAL PIC­TURES VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mark Wahlberg por­trays one of the Navy SEALs in “Lone Sur­vivor,” in one scene at­tended to by a de­fi­ant Pash­tun vil­lager (Ali Suli­man) and his son (Ro­han Chand).

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