“Leaving the summer-movie frivolity of Battleship behind him,” begins Variety‘s Justin Chang, “writer-director Peter Berg delivers his most serious-minded work to date with Lone Survivor, a scorching, often unbearably brutal account of a June 2005 military mission that claimed the lives of 19 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. Adapted from the eyewitness narrative of now-retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, this dramatic reconstruction of the ill-fated Operation Red Wings is perhaps the most grueling and sustained American combat picture since Black Hawk Down, as well as a prime example of how impressive physical filmmaking can overcome even fundamental deficiencies in script and characterization.”
Alonso Duralde for TheWrap: “Berg doesn’t overload the exposition or character development, instead taking us through a typical morning with Luttrell [Mark Wahlberg] and his comrades Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, who previously teamed with Berg on Battleship), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster)…. Their superior, Lt. Cmdr. Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana), lays out their latest assignment: to take out Ahmed Shahd (Yousuf Azami), a Taliban fighter responsible for the deaths of 20 Marines in the last week alone. Our four heroes find themselves in a mountain above the village where intel says Shahd is hiding out, but their cover is blown by a passing crew of goatherds…. This leads into the powerful centerpiece of Lone Survivor, a real-time combat sequence that portrays the danger and the terror of warfare as effectively as any movie since Saving Private Ryan.”
“It’s as if Berg felt compelled to one-up directors who have impressed with such bloody set-pieces in the past—Peckinpah, Penn, Spielberg, Bigelow, you name them—thus hoping to join this elite list of action filmmakers.” The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy: “Berg’s work here is at the top of his range, as previously displayed in Friday Night Lights and his other Middle East-set film, The Kingdom, and a far cry from his cringe-worthy most recent outing, Battleship, even though his key collaborators—cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler, editor Colby Parker Jr. and composer Steve Jablonsky—carry over from that job. The film is rugged, skilled, relentless, determined, narrow-minded and focused, everything that a soldier must be when his life is on the line.”
McCarthy finds no “discernable political tilt,” and Duralde argues that the film “eschews politics and partisanship,” but Charlie Schmidlin, writing at the Playlist, disagrees: “Presenting Shah as an eternally scowling military leader whose main trait is that he has no earlobes, Berg is content to let a propagandistic edge seep into what is already a boldly patriotic film. In turn, this tips the narrative over into black-and-white portrayals that cheapen it significantly.” He gives Lone Survivor a B.
Update, 12/16: Kyle Buchanan talks with Berg for Vulture.
Update, 12/22: Drew Taylor interviews Berg of the Playlist.
Updates, 12/26: “The defining trait of Lone Survivor—with respect to both its characters and Mr. Berg’s approach to them—is professionalism,” writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “It is a modest, competent, effective movie, concerned above all with doing the job of explaining how the job was done. Afterward, you may want to think more about reasons and consequences, about global and domestic politics, but while the fight is going on, you are absorbed in the mechanics of survival.”
“This is a movie in three acts, with three competing agendas,” writes Time‘s Richard Corliss. “It creates macho-men stereotypes to earn sympathy for men occupying a country most of whose inhabitants don’t want them. It then explodes the fantasy of an all-potent U.S. military through the muddle and screwups that can plague any large operation. Finally, it embraces another convention of war movies: civilians so grateful for the intervention of an American soldier that they give him refuge and the means of escape. You are welcome to accept any of these propositions, but it’s hard to buy all three.”
Steve Macfarlane for Slant: “Much in the vein of Black Hawk Down, a film from which Berg unmistakably took encouragement, a roster of young white A-listers are given starring roles in the cadre, with the implicit knowledge (see: title) that they won’t make it to the movie’s end. Yet despite the foreknowledge of a bloodbath, the heavy emphasis on sacrifice, there can be no mistaking it for an antiwar film…. Lone Survivor proofs itself against criticism by hiding behind its protagonists; the physicality of its filmmaking is but a pretext for yet another gargantuan, subliminal recruitment ad.”
“Lone Survivor is a two-hour salute to American heroes doing what needs to be done, against impossible odds,” writes Noel Murray at the Dissolve. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Not every war movie has to conclude that violence never solved anything, or that the military dehumanizes soldiers. There’s plenty of room in the cinematic spectrum for a throwback gung-ho combat picture. But moments scattered throughout Lone Survivor suggest the more nuanced and thought-provoking approach that Berg ultimately chose not to pursue.”
“There’s a fine line between honoring the sacrifices of our men in uniform and romanticizing warfare itself,” writes A.A. Dowd at the AV Club. “Berg, who’s never been shy about his military fetish, charges headlong across that line, guns blazing and flag flapping.”
“Maybe some of Lone Survivor‘s uncomfortable aftertaste comes from its timing,” suggests Jesse Hassenger at the L. “It caps a year of survival stories—Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and All Is Lost—with one that barely seems interested in survival as compared to honorable, senseless death.”
“A veteran actor, Berg shows a much subtler touch with ensemble performances,” writes Steven Boone at RogerEbert.com. “Scenes of elite warriors busting each other’s chops and joking through the terrifying moments of anticipation between battles capture the essence of jocular group chemistry…. What this story really curses is all the faulty equipment and poor operational planning that imperiled Luttrell and his brothers. They fret over broken radios, phones and unavailable helicopters. Never mind about Academy members voting on this one early next year: let’s see how many Congress members have seen Lone Survivor the next time a bill to expand defense spending is on the table.”
For Amy Nicholson in the Voice, Lone Survivor is “a jingoistic snuff film… erg’s flick bleeds blood red, bone-fracture white, and bruise blue…. I’d like to think that, on some level, Berg is questioning the sense of a film—and a foreign policy—that makes target practice of our magnificent teams of hard-bodied, hairy-chested, rootin’-tootin’, shootin’, parachutin’, double-cap-crimpin’ frogmen, these soldiers who decorate their bunks with baby pictures of themselves next to an American flag and are so nobly eager to sacrifice their lives for each other and their country. But the ammo doesn’t stop blasting long enough for their deaths to have weight.”
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn finds it to be “less a depiction of courage than a brutish magnification of anger and pain, both of which it conveys a lot better than the high ground that it reaches for.”
“Several moments where Berg seems to be exerting some technical prowess, such as one of two very explicitly ferocious cascades down the unforgiving mountain terrain, where the decision to utilize slow motion in order to fixate on the carnage, seem a tad gratuitous,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. “But any distractions pallor in the mind numbing onslaught of hellish intensity, faced by an ensemble that at least equals or surpasses a variety of men and women centered survivalist tales that have graced theater screens this year.”
Update, 1/2: “Lone Survivor will not please people exasperated by an endless war, but it’s an achievement nonetheless,” finds the New Yorker‘s David Denby.
Update, 1/6: “If anything, the fact that the outcome is, at least roughly, known in advance only adds to the film’s sickening tension, the atmosphere of preordained doom through which its characters seem to move.” Slate‘s Dana Stevens: “Berg tested his own limits, and those of his cast, too. Together, they underwent a version of Navy SEAL training in preparation for the shoot, and their dedication to documenting the physical and emotional rigors of battle—and the intensity and intimacy of the bonds among soldiers—is complete. Though a few of the characters could have been better fleshed out in the script, every performance is committed, understated, and superb. Even if we know from the mission’s outset that three of these four courageous (yet terrified) young men are doomed to die, when the time comes, it’s wrenching to lose each one.”
Updates, 3/30: For the LA Weekly, Gene Maddaus profiles producers Remington Chase and Stefan Martirosian: “Their backgrounds include convictions for cocaine trafficking; ties to the Russian oil business, the Armenian government and the African diamond trade; and stints as federal informants. Most disturbing are allegations that they orchestrated a contract killing in Moscow—allegations that the Moscow police took seriously enough to investigate. Chase and Martirosian say they can explain everything.”
More reviews: Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle, 3.5/5), Shaun Brady (Philadelphia City Paper, C-), Josef Braun, David Edelstein (New York), William Goss (Film.com, 6.8/10), Craig D. Lindsey (Nashville Scene), Wesley Morris (Grantland), Andrew O’Hehir (Salon), Ray Pride (Newcity Film) and Ben Sachs (Chicago Reader).