'Lone Survivor' review: Best when it doesn't feel like a movie

'Lone Survivor'

'Lone Survivor' (December 30, 2013)

**1/2 (out of four)

It may be the right call to end a movie whose characters need further verification of their heroism with Peter Gabriel covering David Bowie's "Heroes."

Closing "Lone Survivor" like that, however, cheapens the film instead of honoring its true-life inspirations. Based on the real 2005 "Operation Red Wings" mission that led to a deadly gunfight in the Afghan mountains between a small group of Navy SEALs and countless members of the Taliban, "Lone Survivor" -- how's that for a spoiler-y title -- opens and closes with a loose grasp on how to turn authentic courage into an action movie. In between, though, wow.

Written and directed by Peter Berg ("The Kingdom," "Friday Night Lights"), the film features music from Explosions in the Sky and co-stars Taylor Kitsch as a charismatic leader, making the beginning feel almost like a military spinoff of "FNL." The generic way Berg introduces SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Mike Murphy (Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) doesn't help. (The mission's detail also pales compared to the masterful storytelling of "Zero Dark Thirty.") In "Survivor," the hazing of a newbie does drive home the fraternity-like nature of the group before their bonds are shown on the dangerous terrain where it counts most.

Once the decently acted, helmetless quartet becomes engaged in battle, "Lone Survivor" impressively puts the viewer in the space of the soldier, surrounded by gunfire but always working as a team of brothers. As Marcus stands firm on the morally complex rules of engagement and Mike risks his life for purposes of information and communication, it couldn't be easier to admire the bravery on screen. Speaking of a different kind of bravery: I don't know the last time I praised the stunt work in a movie, but the guys of "Lone Survivor" deserve five rounds of applause. The way they tumble down the mountain should have anyone with eyes and nerves grimacing.

Though "Lone Survivor" avoids the offensive phoniness of "Act of Valor" (which starred active duty Navy SEALs), unnecessary voiceover, too many looks at the vast mountainous landscape and the last-second kills found in any dimwitted blockbuster turn Berg's flick into one that overworks to push our emotional and heart-pounding buttons. Sequences in which the guys get shot and yell, "Oh, [bleep]" become repetitive.

Otherwise, it's good at letting the terror and tension of war reveal volumes about those involved. The men demonstrate that words and actions must always be chosen carefully. Berg should have followed suit.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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