The 400-Word Review: Lone Survivor

By Sean Collier

January 13, 2014

Just because you have a beard doesn't make you a hunter.

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Harrowing, realistic and stark, Lone Survivor may be the war movie we need. It’s not, however, the war movie anybody wants.

Based on the nonfiction book written by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and columnist Patrick Robertson, Lone Survivor (one of the rare films that provides a near-total spoiler in its title) is an account of the disastrous 2005 SEAL mission Operation Red Wings, in which an attempt on a regional Taliban leader in Afghanistan went awry. Obviously, casualties were heavy on both sides, and the speed and ease with which American soldiers are killed in Lone Survivor is shocking.

Most of our time is spent with a quartet of SEALs (Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster) in the field, as they prepare, move in and swiftly begin to deal with a rapidly dissolving game plan. The film is being compared to Saving Private Ryan; the true comparison is only to that film’s opening sequences, as much of Lone Survivor consists of unflinching, real-time depictions of military action.

There are lessons here, to be sure. Many recent films have attempted to portray modern warfare accurately and violently, and Lone Survivor may do the best job of any of them. Peter Berg’s direction is a bit too busy, but he’s saved by whip-crack editing by Colby Parker Jr. Among the cast, Wahlberg and Foster comport themselves well; Kitsch, Hirsch and the whole of the supporting cast are forgettable.


The courage of Luttrell and his compatriots is beyond question, and has been well-represented in his own book and on television (the incident was extensively featured on “60 Minutes,” among other places). And in its attempts to represent the reality of war, Lone Survivor succeeds. Beyond that, though, is a toothless story presented with an alarming lack of emotion. What happens is terrible and vivid, but the story, such as it is, is one of random events and an outcome unlikely enough to render it free of grander meaning.

In presenting it without flourish, too, Berg — who also adapted the screenplay and shares production credit — takes a documentarian’s ethos to what is clearly a dramatization. In that, he seems to pursue truth, but the effect is a sterile one. Maybe that’s part of the idea — that not enough attention is paid to these tragedies — but it leads to an unpleasant and fundamentally meaningless experience in the theater.

My Rating: 6/10
Overall Rating on 83/100

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at



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