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Film & DVD

‘Lone Survivor’ focuses too much on action, not enough on character

Americans love their heroes, and this movie about the mission of Operation Red Wings is no exception

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Lone Survivor
★★ (out of 5 stars)

The fetishization of warriors is nothing new in American cinema. We like our heroes super-sized, bursting with uncommon bravery and patriotic pride. Movies like Saving Private Ryan, The Kingdom, the GI Joe franchise and Pearl Harbor (which made $200 million) feed our reductive need for super-human and unambiguous heroism. Gone is the bleeding-heart emotional hand-wringing of Coming Home and The Deer Hunter; instead we get movies that embrace a jingoistic “protecting our freedoms” philosophy that never articulates what that phrase really means or who the men and women of the U.S. military actually are.

And who can blame them? Even a Best Film Oscar couldn’t convince American audiences to watch The Hurt Locker, with its complicated view of American courage. It’s that same lack of interest in nuance that fed the Pat Tillman fable – his tragic death by “friendly fire” was heavily marketed by the Bush administration as a blaze-of-glory act of U.S. heroism.

Writer-director Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, a masterfully executed true-life action film, suffers from the same desire for myth-making and chest-thumping.

Chronicling the ill-fated 2005 Operation Red Wings mission, Berg follows the four members of SEAL Team 10 – Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) – who were instructed to gather intel on Taliban leader Ahmad Shah and accidentally stumbled into a family of goatherders. This encounter led to a mountaintop ambush by a small army of Afghans. The title of the movie pretty much tells you how things turn out.

Things kick off with a remarkable title sequence that uses real footage of SEAL recruit training. It’s brutal and uncompromising, underlining the incredible physical and mental strain these dedicated men are subjected to in their preparation for duty. What follows, however, is 20 minutes of paint-by-number character morsels before the bullets, blood and bone fragments start to fly.

While it’s obvious he means well – Berg clearly reveres these soldiers – he doesn’t seem all that interested in depicting who they were as men. Heck, Die Hard’s John McClane was a more fully sketched character than any of these real-life action heroes.

The actors are all top-notch – with Kitsch finally getting to display some big-screen charm, as his character frets over the cost of a horse his wife wants to purchase – but except for a morally heated argument about what they should do with the goatherders, the SEALS’ dialogue mostly consist of F-bombs, military jargon and manly declarations of brotherhood.

For the next hour, Luttrell and company engage in a long and savage battle over unforgiving terrain. It’s gripping and, frankly, lurid stuff. Like a patriotic snuff film, Berg provides plenty of gratuitous kill shots and gorgeously edited you-are-there suffering, with a sound design that’s Oscar-worthy for its vividness. You’ve haven’t experienced the full Dolby-accentuated wonder of a lung filling with blood until you’ve witnessed Lone Survivor.

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