The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Lone Survivor

There's been a great irony in films dealing with our nation's “war on terror.” Many of them have been quite good, but none of them have been hits. (The Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty did the best, but even it failed to cross the $100 million mark.) There's been a lot of speculation about whether audiences even want to see the topic addressed onscreen; after all, we live under the threat of terrorism every day, so why subject ourselves to it during time meant to forget the world's troubles? Filmmakers keep taking on the subject, though, and that's admirable, especially when we get a picture like Lone Survivor. Commercial enough to break the box office jinx, but still of sufficiently high quality to deserve kudos from cinephiles of all stripes, it is a rousing and thoughtful work that makes a big impact.

This is the true story of SEAL Team 10 and the failed “Operation Red Wings.” The SEALs are assigned to perch themselves on a mountain overlooking the tiny village where a high-ranking Taliban official is located. When their cover is blown, the soldiers - including Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) - climb higher on the mountain, only to discover that it doesn't offer sufficient place to take cover. Outnumbered and overpowered, the only way to go is down the other side – a steep drop that sends them tumbling out of control, repeatedly smashing into rocks. From there, the situation goes from bad to worse.

That scene of the men falling down the mountain is brutal, and unlike anything I've seen before. It's also one of the ways in which Lone Survivor is most special. Director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) films it so that it looks incredibly realistic. The sounds of bones snapping and soldiers grunting in pain makes the sequence even more authentic. We sense in this moment how brave the SEALs are. Either way they go, they're facing potential doom. They choose what seems to be the lesser of two evils, then carry on in anguishing pain out of a sense of duty. Dedication of this sort is inspiring, which is the very emotion Lone Survivor seeks to earn. The film is a tribute to the tirelessness with which our armed forces fight terror, even – and especially - when the chips are down.

Berg thankfully avoids the kind of shaky-cam visuals that have become part and parcel of modern war movies. Instead, he opts for a smoother, cleaner shooting style that keeps us focused on the characters during the combat sequences. Lone Survivor does the human element quite well. We come to know these soldiers not as your garden variety war movie stereotypes, but as individual people, with occasionally differing views of the battle they're fighting. For example, after being discovered on that mountain by an old man and two teenagers, the SEALs debate whether it's better to kill them, or let them go and take their chances. Moments such as this emphasize that the war on terror is confusing and complex, even for those most fully engaged in it. Decisions about “right” and “wrong” fall victim to a perpetual shade of gray that can be almost impossible to figure out. Even in smaller moments, Lone Survivor keeps a very human-centered approach. Berg establishes a visual connection between a soldier played by Emile Hirsch and his wife back home that is later used to pay off in a meaningful, emotional way.

Lone Survivor doesn't have the intellectual heft of Zero Dark Thirty or the psychological What does this do to our soldiers? inquisitiveness of The Hurt Locker. It's essentially a very well-executed action movie with greater than usual relevance, thanks to it being a true story and addressing some of the complexities in the war against terrorism. But the film does convey all the tenseness, all the danger, and all the heroism inherent in our war on terror, and that gives it a very humane feel that sucks the viewer in. Lone Survivor is a more accessible picture on the subject for that reason.

The only place it falters is in the final 20 minutes. If you remember the true story, you know what happens. If not, you can probably guess that the title is a spoiler. The last act feels just a little too Hollywood-y, as though someone felt the movie needed to hit specific action beats, including giving Wahlberg a chance to kick some bad guy ass. This isn't a huge misstep, especially considering an end credit sequence brings things back around, but it does feel more calculated than everything before it.

Lone Survivor is strong enough to withstand that minor bump. Nicely acted by a solid cast, and directed with both flair and respect by Berg, this is a suitably suspenseful tribute to the soldiers who put themselves in grave danger to keep our shores safe.

( 1/2 out of four)

Lone Survivor is rated R for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language. The running time is 2 hours and 1 minute.

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