'Lone Survivor' (2013) Movie Review

Lone Survivor movie review
Taylor Kitsch, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch in Lone Survivor
Photo: Universal Pictures

Without question, Lone Survivor is one of the best films of 2013. Given the subject matter, the immediate comparison by most will be to Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, largely based on the story's extreme nature and sheer brutality. Lone Survivor, however, feels far more stripped down, exposed and naked. It doesn't blink and it holds your heart in its hand for two hours, squeezing ever tighter as the story of four Navy SEALs and their 2005 mission in the mountains of Afghanistan unfolds, ending (and this is no spoiler as much as it is preparation) as the biggest single loss of life for Naval Special Warfare forces since World War II.

Director Peter Berg (The Kingdom) has adapted Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell's first person memoir, telling the story of what happened to Luttrell and his three fellow SEALs as a trio of Taliban-loyal goat herders compromised their mission to locate and identify a senior Taliban leader. Faced with a moral dilemma as to what to do with their unexpected captives -- kill them, tie them up or let them go -- the decision is made to follow the rules of war. They set them free and attempt to re-establish communications, abort the mission and get home. Time, as it would turn out, was not on their side and this film does its damnedest to make sure the audience fully realizes the weight of that decision.

Lone Survivor
Grade: A-

Lone Survivor"Lone Survivor" is a Universal Pictures release, directed by Peter Berg and is rated R for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language. The running time is .

The cast includes Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig, Ali Suliman and Jerry Ferrara.

The four men that make up the reconnaissance team, code named Operation Red Wings, are Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Matthew "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell. An opening credit sequence features actual Navy SEAL training, suggesting the kind of hardened men we're about to spend the next two hours with, and the following 15 minutes set the stage for what's to come as much as giving us a sense of who these men are beyond their occupation. Much of this may be cliched, but relish these quieter moments, get to know these men, because you are about to go to war and it isn't going to be pretty.

It won't be for another hour and forty minutes until your heart stops beating out of your chest and you'll finally be able to close your gaping mouth. I haven't read Luttrell's book, but having listened to him recount the events on "60 Minutes" (watch here), knowing he was a consultant on the film and even has a small cameo role, the sense of authenticity in what you're watching is heightened. Clearly dramatic license was taken, but to get the impression the gun fight bears any resemblance to what actually took place is frightening.

Lone Survivor is relentless and hardly affords you the opportunity to catch your breath. Berg places you squarely in the middle of the battle as these four brothers in arms find themselves taking on a horde of Taliban soldiers. This is persistant, guerilla-style filmmaking at its finest and very well may be the defining, narrative film to this point regarding the Afghan war.

Best of all, the film doesn't bend to any political agenda or even get caught up in "ra ra" American exceptionalism. This isn't to say it doesn't have a message, the message is clear. It's a film about brotherhood and never giving up and in this respect I think does well to honor the men portrayed in the film and I'm equally happy to know Luttrell was involved in its making for that very reason. Beyond that, the third act delivers a message you have to see to believe. Until the final picture is seen before the end credits roll, you just might not believe what you've just seen.

As much as Berg deserves credit for his direction, his frequent cinematographer, Tobias A. Schliessler, has his camera in the middle of the action at all times, whip panning from one bullet to the next. This is an "in the middle of the shit" film and Berg and Schliessler put us there and leave us there until you're absolutely spent.

A lot of credit also goes to the cast. Wahlberg, Kitsch, Hirsch and Foster have a tough task, which is to shed their pretty boy, Hollywood appearances and do so without overacting. These are roles that actors typically get so caught up in the stereotypical "hooyah" aspect of the characters they forget they are playing real people. All four of our leads here are entrenched in their characters, perhaps because of the intensity of the film itself, but whatever the reason I was all in.

What's most astonishing is that despite the harrowing nature of the story and how sad it is, I also found it uplifting and inspiring. It's a journey into hell and yet I've watched it twice so far and could watch it again right now. It's the men and their code of honor that bonds them. It could also, very easily, be the comfort of knowing I am safe here in my house in Seattle while these men risk their lives for my freedom and with that comes a sense of equal parts pride, sorrow and shame. With a movie like this it's almost impossible to put into words why it affected me as much as it did. The point is, it's a feeling.

Lone Survivor made me feel close to these men, which is all you can ask of a film of this sort. Just in the telling of their story the film needn't deal with political agendas or commentaries, the story alone is enough, allowing you to come to your own conclusions. It speaks to the complexity of the war that is being waged and the participants on both sides. Granted, many of the characters are shaped as stereotypes, but those that matter bring an emotional weight to the narrative that can't be denied or ignored.


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More Reviews
  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Torryz/ Torryz

    This just went to the top of my viewing list!

    • david hartzog

      Mine too.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ian/ Ian

    I just don't have much interest in this. I have a hard time believing there isn't some level of "ra ra America" in the story, at least subconsciously. After Captain Phillips was reduced to this idea in its final act I don't need another whole two hours of it. And the central argument the movie seems to make doesn't sit well with me either.

    • GobleGableOneOfUs

      Captain Phillips was more about the tragedy of the situation. Hanks breaking down in the final scene was textbook Stockholm Syndrome. It was "ra ra" in the same way Zero Dark Thirty was, meaning it wasn't. Showing the capabilities of the most powerful military force in the world doesn't mean it's nationalistic propaganda. I will say I initially agreed with you in that this did look like a ra ra in the trailer.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ian/ Ian

        I thought the final act of Captain Phillips was as much about the military as it was about the character. Or maybe it's just that some military people heartily embraced it as it completely covers up how that sequence actually went down in reality.

        • GobleGableOneOfUs

          Meaning they didn't show how the real Captain Phillips apparently knew how dangerous the waters they were sailing in actually were? I thought it definitely hinted at it, especially in the scene when Phillips was looking at the map.

          • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ian/ Ian

            Read my comment again. I said the final act, as in the military rescue. If you don't know what I'm talking about, Google is your friend.

            • GobleGableOneOfUs

              I have. It's just on the internet most of the statements that say the film was inaccurate stem from what I just mentioned. If you're talking about the military operation itself, mockumentary style action scenes will always be exaggerated for dramatic effect, I still wouldn't view that at nationalistic propaganda.

            • Brad

              Fuck, you're obnoxious. It's one thing to BORE EVERYONE with your tired, contrived and facile "THIS IS PROPAGANDA" comment, but to spit out such vile is beyond an insult. You can be stupid and you can be mean in life, but you can't be both.

              • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ian/ Ian

                What a well-thought-out and persuasive argument you present, punctuated with an undoubtedly profound insight. And you don't even manipulate my comment to strengthen your own point. I'm truly impressed with such powerful rhetoric.

              • Brad

                Well, thank you. But here's a #truthbomb: I DON'T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY. I've read enough: frankly the more of your writing that I read, the less impressed I am. Engaging you in anything other than an insult would be to credit you with an intellect that you have not earned. It would be as if a ten year old throws a fit and demands that you drop everything to give them what they want. I just don't care.

              • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ian/ Ian

                It's abundantly clear from this brief yet still too long conversation who the ten year old throwing a fit is. I will not engage with you any further.

              • Brad

                Thanks for FINALLY understanding how little I - or anyone else - cares about your take.

              • http://mulhollandcinelog.wordpress.com/ Gustavo H. Razera

                You care so little that you threw a tantrum at him and kept replying.

              • Brad

                Yeah, thanks for the contribution that no one asked for or respects.

      • TheOneWhoKnocks

        "Zero Dark Thirty". "Argo". "The Hurt Locker". "Captain Phillips". All of these are "ra ra" movies, some more than others. Does that mean that they're bad? No. But they are propaganda in more ways than one.

        • GobleGableOneOfUs

          I don't see how you can even make the argument that Zero Dark Thirty, Hurt Locker, and Captain Phillips were "ra ra" propaganda movies. In Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain's character completely breaks down crying at the end out of pure shame after torturing all those people. It was supposed to say even if the supposed grand enemy is killed, what does that ultimately accomplish in the end? The Hurt Locker's message was the addictive nature that so many in the past have viewed war as and have written about, dating all the way back to Homer. A real "ra ra" movie is Black Hawk Down.

          • TheOneWhoKnocks

            Yes, "BHD" is also propaganda. I would suggest taking a look at Glenn Greenwald's pieces on "ZDT" if you want to know why it's propaganda. Add in the fact that Bigelow essentially dedicated the film to the CIA and you'll see why it's so hagiographic.

            "THL" is also agitprop for similar reasons.

            • GobleGableOneOfUs

              I thought the graphic nature of the torture scenes were clearly meant as a commentary to say that it is downright deplorable. And then Jason Clarke's character is seen in a suit and tie minutes later. This shows that all that happened right under our noses, and that the perpetrators could have essentially been anyone, or everyone, even the guy wearing a suit in the US. But that is one opinion, why don't you actually tell me yours? Bigelow could have dedicated the film to the CIA to say "this is what you all have done, and at what cost?"

    • JohnL1313
  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/navaneethks/ navaneethks

    I'll have to watch it to see if "...the film doesn't bend to any political agenda or even get caught up in "ra ra" American exceptionalism." The trailer is nothing but propaganda.

    • http://letterboxd.com/ragingtaxidrver/ RagingTaxiDriver

      But wasn't Captain Phillips like that as well? That wasn't "ra ra" American exceptionalism. Admittedly, this could very well be, but I think it will be smarter than that.

  • Michael Askari

    Surrising score considering it has a 64% on Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe it will be better recieved closer to it's relese in January?

    • indy42

      It's at 64% after 14 reviews, which is pretty much nothing (it'll end up with 100+ when all is said and done)

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/chris_sc77/ Chris Carmichael

    I just have to say I am 100% done with this site.
    I just cannot abide by the Hobbit getting a D and this pro military garbage getting an A-

    • Marlon Wallace

      Chris, if you've read Brad's reviews, after a while you get that his preference is for STORY, often self-contained, not that he doesn't like open-ended films or film endings that are open to interpretation, but he seems to feel like the movie has to be complete and stand-alone and I think he didn't get that from "Smaug" whereas "Lone Survivor" in his opinion is a complete, self-contained story. It also seemed to think it was apolitical. Now, probably like you, I don't appreciate jingoism, but I'm not sure that you have to agree with a movie's politics or implied politics to think the storytelling or the craft of film-making is superior, although I understand how that can be a hindrance for some.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

        I think a major point of contention may stem from lines like this: "It could also, very easily, be the comfort of knowing I am safe here in my house in Seattle while these men risk their lives for my freedom and with that comes a sense of equal parts pride, sorrow and shame." which go well beyond praising the film for its technical proficiency and reveal the writers own political bias (i.e. that he subscribes to the notion that what those men were doing there was protecting his "freedom"). And in stating his own political opinion (again, that the soldiers in the film are depicted as defending "freedom") he contradicts his assertions that the film itself has "no agenda."

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/sofasobad/ sofasobad

          I agree with AS. Brad, you can't come up with lines like 'these men risk their lives for my freedom' and also claim that the movie has no political agenda. If you actually believe that, then I think you're being incredibly naive. Am I right in thinking that the Americans are the goodies, and the Afghans are the baddies, by any chance? What about the freedom of the Afghans not to be occupied by a foreign army?

          • Marlon Wallace

            I would ask you what I asked AS. have you seen "Letters from Iwo Jima" by Clint Eastwood? Does that movie have a political agenda of depicting one side being good versus one being bad or is it just the story of soldiers? Did you ever once feel that Americans were the baddies in that Eastwood movie?

            • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

              What Eastwood did with those films is significant: He placed the audience in a position where they had to understand and sympathize with both sides. Does Lone Survivor do that? I don't know. Doesn't sound like it.

        • Marlon Wallace

          I think you're right that Brad's statement reveals his own political opinion per se, but I still don't think that it means the film itself had a political agenda. Now, obviously the movie has the American soldiers as the protagonists, so obviously it wants you to root for them and to be on their side. That's not necessarily a political agenda, no more than "Letters from Iwo Jima" has a political agenda. It's just depicting this story about soldiers.

          • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

            "it wants you to root for them and to be on their side" - Sounds like a bias to me. But I haven't seen the film. I'm only going on what Brad said.

            • Marlon Wallace

              you don't have to have seen the film. I'm just saying on a general level. all storytelling that's first-person narrative is biased in that way. very few films, that aren't comedies, rarely make the protagonist someone you root against, or are supposed to be indifferent about. how else would you tell a first-person story about a soldier fighting for his life regardless of the politics that put him in that situation and have it be successful?

              • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

                For the purposes of this conversation I'm not going to deal in hypotheticals. But it sounds, from what you're saying, that Lone Survivor may not be "unbiased" or have "no agenda," as Brad claimed.

            • Reindeer

              I am wondering... I was rooting for the Germans in Das Boot, for the reasons Marlon Wallace is giving, but I do not think the film had a political agenda in favor of Nazi's... (Even though they are never really presented as that.) It just showed horrors of war from a certain perspective. It could be the case with this film.

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/austinjoel/ austinjoel

          Has anyone bothered to read the book? The book does have a political lean but it's not about fighting the Afghans it's about fighting the Taliban. It's no secret that there is heavy anti American sentiment here but supporting the troops and supporting the war are different. I totally understand Brads point of pride sorrow and shame and don't see how that is a biased statement.

          • Brad

            Don't bother. It seems as if this comments section is filled with obnoxious fucking dreck that would rather comment on events than actually read about them.

            • http://mulhollandcinelog.wordpress.com/ Gustavo H. Razera

              We are discussing the movie, therefore reading the book is not and will never be a requirement.

        • GobleGableOneOfUs

          Stating that the soldiers are fighting for your freedom is not a political statement. It is a fact that they are. You can disagree with what they are currently doing, just as I have the last 10 years. But understanding the sacrifice that these men and women make is not showing any political bias. The bottom line is that if you take away the military defense, then we have no freedom.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

      Have you seen the film Chris?

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Jamie/ Jamie

      I'm getting pretty tired of reading someone else's opinion too. I thought this website was going to be more "my opinion" based!! ANGER!!!!

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Adu/ Adu

      Come on man! Cant be so easily dismayed about these things...

    • Isaiah Farris

      Do you live in America?

    • http://tbonetoday.com ttt_bone

      I don't think the declaration is necessary. Just move on. I think everyone is looking for reviews and insights to inform their viewing choices. His opinions don't line up with your own. Fair enough. Find somebody whose take on movies doesn't offend you.

      I certainly don't always agree with Brad and Laremy's opinions but I appreciate the differing points of view. I'm not familiar with the story of Lone Survivor, I'm not American, but Brad's review has me interested in seeing a movie I would have otherwise dismissed.

      If it turns out to be a propaganda piece, I just keep that in mind for the next military movie that gets reviewed here. Seems like you could at least wait and see the movie before declaring it garbage though.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Xarnis/ Xarnis

    Looks jingoistic, but I have some hope that it can be good.

  • Zachary Marsh

    Saw it last week Brad, and I too was surprised at how great it was. I highly agree with you: it really IS one of the year's best movies.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/PzyKo/ Max

    Saw that grade: Did a fist pump
    Read the review: Did a second fist pump
    This movie has been at the top of my anticipated list since the beginning of the year, and I'm glad you liked it, Brad.

  • http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3769949/ thatpj

    I liked Lone Survivor as well, just a tad less. Had some issues when Wahlberg got to the town and consequences therein. Still think Berg can be forgiven for Battleship though!

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

    If the movie is pro-military, why would that be the end of the world?

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/JohnW.Creasy/ John W. Creasy

      Because there are disingenuous posters here who feign an interest in objectivity, when they would in fact have plenty of praise to offer if the movie portrayed servicemen as evil, or brainless pawns. They would try to convince you that Green Zone was a superior film to Saving Private Ryan, for example, and would wonder why "patriotism" and "jingoism" have separate dictionary entries.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/navaneethks/ navaneethks

      Because this happens, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/12/if-a-drone-strike-hit-an-american-wedding-wed-ground-our-fleet/282373/ and no one in America is outraged. If that happened here, to an American wedding, it would be considered a terrorist attack.. but because America bombed a Yemen wedding... it's considered a mistake and so easily brushed off like it never happened with little to no value for a life of a foreign national. How is it any different? So for once, we'd like to see the negative effects the American military has had in those countries they are in. You can still have your 9 out of 10 pro-military movies.

      Heard about that news, thanks to AS.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/austinjoel/ austinjoel

        What does that story have to do with Marcus Luttrell and the Lone Survivor? Did he control the drone? This can't possibly be a good movie and Brad can't share an opinion about the movie because AS showed you a news story?

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/navaneethks/ navaneethks

          What?! I never commented on Brad or his criticism of this movie anywhere on this site.

          And that story has nothing to do with the Lone Survivor. The question was about 'pro-military' movies in general and it's just a simple response.

          • GobleGableOneOfUs

            Are you seriously implying that 9 out of 10 war films are pro-military?

      • Isaiah Farris

        So pro-military films cause accidental drone strikes? What do you think all of those Muslim terrorists would do to our weddings if they could? Islam...Jihading for 5000 years.

  • Isaiah Farris

    Can someone please tell me what is wrong with "ra-ra America???"

    • http://mulhollandcinelog.wordpress.com/ Gustavo H. Razera

      You need to get out of your basement and learn some things about the real world.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Chris138/ Chris138

    So, uh... I thought this was a website where people come to talk about movies?

  • Jake17

    This website, especially the commenters, have become a REALLY hostile place to people who don't agree with Brad, or their own beliefs. Some of the comments on here are particularly hateful. It's getting to the point where I no longer have any interest in this site. I thought this place was supposed to be a sort of safe haven for cinephiles and people who discuss movies, but several recent articles and comments come across as bitter. It's a real shame.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      I'm sorry you feel that way. I'm on vacation for the first time in... years and not sure what I could have done to prevent the comments above. I'm not sure what articles you're referring to that I have written that are bitter, but I'm open to hearing your thoughts. Just email me at webmaster@ropeofsilicon. I'd be more than happy to hear your concerns.

      • http://letterboxd.com/ragingtaxidrver/ RagingTaxiDriver

        I think he's referring to The Hobbit and various other articles that had any affiliation with this review or the aforementioned review. But you're not the only one to get hostile comments on The Hobbit I should add, as I have recently been the target with my own site as well pertaining to that.

      • Jake17

        Sorry, I forgot to reply: I'll definitely try and remember to send something out soon. It's been tough with the holidays, I haven't been paying much attention to movie news and such. Hope you enjoyed your vacation!

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

      I hope you won't give up on the site Jake. If I'm ever one of the "problem child" commenters feel free to call me out on it.

      • Jake17

        I really hope I don't, there are a lot of good people that come here, and I do, for the most part, enjoy the writing and articles. There have just been some minor issues which recently seem to be slowly becoming bigger problems in this community. I've had no problems with you. You're definitely not one of the regulars who seems to bother me (or others).

  • The Flobbit

    Lone Survivor because: Eric Bana. That is all. I just don't like these patriotic, all-American stories.

  • robotsrule

    After listening to the pod I would encourage Brad not to stop interacting with the serious posters on the site. Of course there are internet trolls, particularly when discussing any issue of a controversial or political nature. In reality no one has a complete and unbiased or morally pure position or awareness of what is happening in the world. The world is made up multiple competing interests and human nature is nuanced not black and white. I would also tend to agree that judgement should be reserved until you've actually seen a film otherwise one is merely speculating. On the subject of jingoism in films it's quite well understood that the CIA and military provide logistical and other support to films with messages that they feel are overall advantageous to their goals. Those goals may be inconsistent with what we feel is in the best interests for the country but that is a matter for broader discussion. It's also worth considering whether American films are consciously made with a pro American stance intentionally or just by virtue of the fact that people tend to advocate for their own tribe over that of the other. Certainly an Afghani film about the same subject would tell quite a different story with emphasis on different peoples than 4 US soldiers. This also raises the question of whether or not its up to Afghanis to make such a film or can Americans legitimately tell their story in an unbiased fashion. Howard Zinn asserts that objectivity is not possible or desirable in journalism and that ultimately one must advocate a point of view or a moral position. Is this a piece of journalism, historical fiction, or a mix of both? I certainly think it's worth asking the question why we are entertained by violent films, even when they are bleak and disturbing. Was the torture in Zero Dark Thirty meant to entertain, appeal to revenge fantasies, or depict atrocities that we should condemn? Does the film take a position or merely depict the event? Art is intended to provoke these kinds of debates rather than shut down communication.

  • JGI

    The gun fight in the mountain is one of the best bone chilling segments in movie history. Absolutely brutal and makes you see these guys in a different light. Aside from the fact this is pretty much Black Hawk Down except made out of an actual true story as well. But its the same kind of movie and situation.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Kaleb/ Kaleb

    This movie impacted me greatly. As the credits rolled I just sat in my seat, taking in what I just experienced. The movie shows courage and heroism that I can't even fathom. I completely agree with you Brad, Lone Survivor is one of my favorite films of the year as well. The movie is intense, heartbreaking and incredibly inspiring. I've been a fan of Peter Berg ever since Friday Night Lights in 2004, but I did not think he could knock it out of the park like this. It makes total sense that this is his passion project, it feels like the movie of his career.
    Great review, Brad. I could not agree with you more.

  • William Jenkins

    Best of all, the film doesn't bend to any political agenda or even get caught up in "ra ra" American exceptionalism.

    The film doesn't bend to any political agenda, but the author of this piece does. What a jerk! Perhaps he needs a class on what "american exceptionalism" actually means vs Jingoism (the term he should have used).

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/kathrynlynn/ kathrynlynn

    I just took my sister to this, I'd read the book, she hadn't...so even though I knew what was going to happen, I watched as she was locked in the entire two hours. I echo your review- I would like to say that Foster was a real stand out for me here. I thought his performance was beautiful.

    I was also completely impressed with the portrayal of the action. Having read the book, I didn't know how they were going to show some of it, but it was greatly jarring, you felt every turn and hit as the men continue to fall down (off) mountainsides.

    When I walked away from Luttrell's book, I thought the heart of it was about how deep relationships that go through hardships run. And this movie capitalizes on that. Beautiful, hard film.