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REVIEW: ‘Lone Survivor’ explores mindset, logistics of fight for Murphy’s Ridge

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By Christopher Harrop

From a logistical standpoint, director Peter Berg’s adaptation of “Lone Survivor” for the big screen is a refreshing bit of cinema that attempts to break through the fog of war and give an honest portrayal of the realities of modern warfare.

 

For anyone who has read Marcus Luttrell’s firsthand account of serving in the Navy SEALs and the fateful mission in June 2005 in Afghanistan that’s depicted in the film, it’s a bit difficult to get as true a sense for the individual moments and movements of he and his fellow soldiers as it is to understand Luttrell’s passion for keeping the memory of his brothers in combat alive.

In other words: Luttrell is a great soldier but perhaps not the best writer. Look no further than Ed Darack’s “Victory Point” for a wonderfully detailed account of how American forces worked to weaken the Taliban in Afghanistan during Operation Red Wings and beyond.

While certainly different in its tone and underlying message, the Hollywood treatment for “Lone Survivor” does as admirable a job of reconstructing the mechanics of a small team of Americans dispatched to hostile territory as Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down.”

The tonal differences are a credit to Berg’s ability to retain Luttrell’s spirit — not just in what the Texan (portrayed in the film by Mark Wahlberg) put down in words in the book, but in the air about him — a realness and humanity that transcends mere regurgitation of the pride and valor of a military man.  

After a beautifully photographed shot of a helicopter making its way across the Afghan plains, Wahlberg’s narration on Luttrell’s behalf describes “an unrelenting desire to push yourself harder and further than anyone can think possible” among he and his fellow warriors. “Pushing ourselves into those cold dark corners where the bad things live. where the bad things fight. We wanted that fight at the highest volume. A loud fight.”

Mining that mindset is among the top achievements of “Lone Survivor,” because it provides the crucial underpinning for understanding each and every decision made by the group as they face the oncoming assault of Taliban forces. That group included Luttrell, team leader Lt. Michael Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch), Sonar Technician Petty Officer Second Class Matthew “Axe” Axelson (played by Ben Foster) and Gunner’s Mate Second Class Danny Dietz (played by Emile Hirsch). 

Each actor does a solid job of honing in on and bringing their individual soldier back to life to tell their stories. Kitsch is every bit the cool, collected team leader, revered by Luttrell and others as any big man on campus (or base) would be. Foster presents a slightly unhinged but nevertheless loyal spirit to Axelson. Hirsch also seems to find a coherent depiction of Dietz, whose story is well known here in Colorado, where he was born and grew up.

The pacing and care given to examining how these men make it to the mountains, traverse the landscape and move as a unit while under fire and threat of death around the corner is carefully plotted, rarely going so far as to artificially amplify the amount of fighting and action that took place. This is a key component to “Lone Survivor,” as the filmmakers do take some liberties with the facts of the stories, of which many of them remain in dispute depending on which reports or books you read about Operation Red Wings.

But for each and every moment and detail that does not ring true to what actually happened up on Murphy’s Ridge, the film neither glorifies nor downplays the bonds that keep these men united as a team — there’s an earnest and reverential atmosphere to the proceedings.

The footage of actual Navy SEALs bookending the film — through the rigors of training and the heartache of looking back on lives that were lost in battle — is proof enough that Berg has done a fine job of helping Luttrell accomplish his mission of keeping the memories alive.

 

“Lone Survivor” is rated R. Running time: Two hours, one minute. Three stars out of five.