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Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor 2013

by Steve Habrat

Way back in 2012, one of the first films that kicked off the summer movie season was director Peter Berg’s sci-fi Hasbro epic Battleship, which ended up being one of the biggest flops at the box office that summer. Whether you loved or loathed Berg’s aquatic aliens-vs.-humans blockbuster, it was clear that he is a very patriotic gentleman. A little over a year and a half later, Berg returns to the big screen with Lone Survivor, a breathtaking true war story that sheds the cartoonish Navy propaganda of Battleship and embraces a hair-raising grittiness that drops you right into the cold heart of combat. While Lone Survivor can be accused of bookending itself with the typical war movie sentiments (brotherly bonds, lump-in-the-throat jingoism), the film avoids clichéd mediocrity through the fluid chemistry between its hardened cast members, it’s pulse-pounding gunfights, and a shell-shocking brutality that leaves you sore and aching for hours after seeing it. More importantly, Berg works in a nerve-racking moral debate, which he uses to set the character’s fates into doomed motion.

Lone Survivor tells the true story of four Navy SEALs, Petty Officer Second Class Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg), Lieutenant Michael Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch), Sonar Technician Matt Axelson (played by Ben Foster), and communications officer Danny Dietz (played by Emile Hirsch), who were sent into the rocky hills of Afghanistan to gather surveillance on Ahmad Shahd, a high-ranking member of the Taliban. The SEALs set up camp just outside the village where Shahd is believed to be hiding, but their position is soon compromised after three goat herders happen to stumble upon their position. The SEALs take the goat herders prisoner, but after a lengthy debate about whether to kill them or let them go, the SEALs decide to let them go back to their village. But soon after being letting them go, the goat herders quickly report the run-in to Shahd, who orders a small army of Taliban soldiers to take to the hills and smoke out the Americans. With poor radio connection and no way out, the outnumbered SEALs are forced to engage the charging Taliban forces in a gunfight until they are able to radio the nearby American base for extraction or reinforcements.

Given the film’s title, it is no secret that only one soldier (Luttrell) makes it out alive from this confrontation. Still, Berg ups the film’s tension considerably, and he applies a bruising realism that practically blasts you from your chair. Berg begins the film with stock footage of soldiers in basic training, reconfiguring themselves to be able to endure the intensities of war and the unforgiving environments where they may fight. It’s pretty captivating stuff, and you can’t help but admire these men for doing this, but when our four protagonists are wedged into the rocky Afghani terrain and taking bullets from all angles, it’s truly difficult to imagine that the wounds suffered are met simply with loud groans and a quick grits of their teeth. Rest assured that realism wins out, especially when a heavily wounded Dietz goes into shock after taking a few bullets and having several of his fingers shot off. And then there is the violence itself, which ranges from a nauseating decapitation early on, and then culminates in compound fractures, shrapnel protruding from legs, and spraying gunshot wounds that are executed with exploding squibs and red corn syrup, which gives the violence an extra punch that isn’t shaken off easily. What truly is astonishing is that these four men were able to keep their composures, even after tumbling down rocky cliffs and clearly suffering unimaginable internal injuries that must have been excruciating.

Lone Survivor #2

Berg’s swipes at realism are also aided by the performances from Wahlberg, Kitsch, Foster, and Hirsch, who all seem to instantly click as a unit. Over the past several years, Wahlberg has worked hard to establish himself as a serious actor, and with Lone Survivor, he continues to earn our respect. His performance as Luttrell is one that the audience really feels as he drags himself over jagged rock and collapses in a nearby stream. Kitsch, who was the star of Berg’s Battleship, gives an authoritative performance as Mike Murphy, the group’s leader who has the final say over how to deal with their grim situation. Foster, an actor who has always remained shy of the mainstream, contributes an impressive performance as Axelson, a man who was willing to do whatever it took to keep his fellow brothers alive. Then we have Hirsch as Dietz, the boyish communications officer that slips into shock after having several of his fingers taken off by whizzing bullets. When they are all together, the group really makes the brotherly camaraderie seem natural, even if they sometimes flirt with burly clichés. Rounding out the main cast is Eric Bana as Lieutenant Commander Erik S. Kristensen, who attempted to lead the rushed rescue mission that ended tragically. Also on board is Ali Suliman as Mohammad Gulab, the kindly Afghani villager who was willing to do whatever he could to protect the horribly injured Luttrell.

While Lone Survivor is certainly gripping and unforgiving, the film isn’t completely immune to a few creeping clichés. There are the expected slow-motion acts of heroism that coax tears to the eyes of the viewer, and the brotherly bonds, while convincing, are laid on pretty thick. Clichés aside, Lone Survivor’s real problem shows up when the guns start blazing and the grenades start exploding. The action looks, sounds, and flows spectacularly, but Berg allows it to overshadow his human subjects, which results in speculation that the filmmakers may have cared more about making an action picture rather than remaining fixed on the men who fell in this fight. Still, these complaints are minor, and they are neutralized by the moral debate at the film’s turning point. Watching the SEALs deliberate the fates of the three goat herders—a group that consists of an elderly man, a teenager, and a young boy—is something that will really ignite conversation when the credits roll. Overall, stretches of Lone Survivor will feel slightly familiar to most audience members, but Berg and his cast do a fine job at paying tribute to the men who lost their lives during Operation Red Wings. It’s a tribute made with scorching realism and teary-eyed patriotism, sending you away with a renewed appreciation for those who lay down their lives for freedom.

Grade: B+

Battleship (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Let it be known to the world that I sat through all two hours and eleven minutes of Battleship, the blockbuster based on the board game of the same name, and I actually had a little bit of fun. Yes, I admit that I had an enjoyable time watching the empty headed Transformers knock-off but it was an enjoyment that didn’t come easy at first. Sure, the dialogue is awful and the film is just relentless explosions but it sort of felt like seeing Transformers for the first time. It appealed to the little kid in me while the guy with the film degree rolled his eyes and fought back gagging. The little kid beat out the inner film snob here. Yes, I walked in to Battleship with little interest in it and kind of wanting to quickly duck into theater that was playing The Avengers, questioning whether I could actually make it through this film that was sure to be a monstrosity. Like many of you out there, I was stuck on the fact that, yes, this is a film based off of a friggin’ board game, but if you can make it over that aspect of it, you may find yourself having a bit of fun in all the slow-motion shots of rockets cutting through the air, close-ups of dripping wet faces, and pompous jingoism. Just make double sure your brain is switched off.

Battleship begins with NASA discovering an extrasolar planet that has conditions similar to Earth. NASA quickly begins trying to make contact with the planet, hoping to communicate with intelligent life. The film then takes us to the RIMPAC naval exercises in Hawaii where we get to know unruly but witty Lieutenant Alex Hooper (Played by Taylor Kitsch) and his brother, Commander Stone Hooper (Played by Alexander Skarsgard). As the exercises continue between the U.S. and Japan, strange ships crash into the Pacific and begin setting up an impenetrable force field that jams the Navy’s radar and splits the fleets up. The alien ships then begin attacking a small handful of Japanese and U.S. destroyers and launching assaults on Hong Kong and Hawaii. The small handful of ships trapped within the force field retaliate against the alien invaders but the aliens are also trying to establish communication systems on the shores of Hawaii, which if established, would allow the aliens to bring in reinforcements that will wipe out the human race.

Battleship is the furthest thing from a perfect movie but I can think of a handful of science-fiction/alien invasion blockbusters that are a hell of a lot worse than Battleship. My experience did throw me off because I walked in ready to absolutely hate this movie, under the impression that it would be devoid of any authentic human emotion. Credit director Peter Berg and writers Jon and Erich Hoeber, who have the good sense to inject some unexpected humanity into Battleship. I found myself impressed by the sequences where Kitsch’s Alex, who finds himself in command of one of the destroyers after the death of the senior officer, has to make some seriously tough decisions. Get a load of the scene where the reluctant Alex rescues the sailors of a sunken Japanese destroyer, pulling the terrified and the injured up onto the decks. Berg’s camera floats around the gruesome scene, putting us right in the middle of the disorder and giving us goosebumps from the painful screams of the wounded. We see Alex, filled with quivering rage, screaming out reckless orders to charge one of the alien ships as the hysterical crew pleads with him to reconsider their plan of attack. The crew flits around the boat, trying to get a hold of themselves while sailors cry out to other sailors, “I didn’t sign up for this!” It’s within these scenes that Battleship packs its devastating punch, where we see real humans grieving and attempting to comprehend their terrible situation.

For all of these unexpected emotional wallops, Battleship springs a perplexing plot point that is never explained. Take for instance the scenes in which the aliens, who are capable of pinpointing immediate threats, spare the lives of some of the sailors they stumble across. You’d think that if an alien race were hell-bent of overtaking us, they would be wiping out all of these men so they couldn’t strike back. There is also a scene where the alien ships launch ferocious steel balls that are capable of astonishing devastation into heavily populated downtown areas of Hawaii and begin laying waste to everything in their paths. When these mysterious balls of destruction come across children, they do not attack. You will also find yourself chuckling over the weakness of the dreaded aliens, all who resemble Master Chief from Halo (They actually look pretty cool). Luckily, Berg makes the smart choice to not reveal anything more about these mysterious invaders.

Another plus of Battleship is the handful of likable characters at its core, mostly Kitch’s wild-child Alex. He’s a real terror in the opening moments as he drunkenly tries to find a chicken burrito for his future gal pal, Sam (Played by Brooklyn Decker). Skarsgard’s Stone is the typical no-bullshit type, the one who forces Alex to get his life on track and stay there (He is met with a ton of resistance from Alex). Decker’s Sam, who is a physical therapist, gets some touching moments with the Army veteran and amputee Mick Canales (Played by real life Army veteran and amputee Gregory D. Gadson), both who get moments to be heroes on land. Berg and his crew do everything in their power to get Decker in a bikini but you won’t be complaining. Liam Neeson, who just can’t resist jumping in to a tough-as-nails role, does a fine job as Admiral Shane, who also happens to be Sam’s father. We don’t see much of Neeson, but when we do, he is good and intimidating. Tadanobu Asano shows up as Captain Yugi Nagata, the man who comes up with the grind that uses wave-detection buoys to track and attack the aliens in the dark. Hamish Linklater as the jumpy scientist Cal Zapata delivers some surprisingly effective comic relief without ever being too cheesy. Pop superstar Rihanna shows up as Petty Officer Raikes, a cliché tough gal who likes big weapons. As more people see Battleship, I don’t think I will be alone in my thought that she should stick to music.

Battleship ultimately won me over with its thunderous action sequences that also happened to be consistently inventive. A final showdown that uses the real life ship U.S.S. Missouri was an absolutely blast despite the fact that it also features Alex calling upon a crew of elderly veterans to help man the battleship. Much like the Transformers films, Battleship emphasizes the magnificent CGI but thankfully, it is not in 3D (Hey! Another reason not to absolutely HATE Battleship!). When the film leaves the battles at sea and focuses on the land action, the film looses some of the momentum it gained. The sequence that shows us the destruction of Hong Kong doesn’t serve much of a purpose besides adding another action sequence to keep kiddies interested. The grind-tracking sequence that pays tribute to the board game is the standout portion of Battleship, a scene that will have you on the edge of your seat and hanging on every second (I caught myself holding my breath for one of the characters to yell “HIT!”). While there is plenty of middling and bad aspects of the rowdily patriotic Battleship, there are still enough thrills to keep this leaky vessel afloat.

Grade: B-