‘Lone Survivor’ above typical war films

Even the best American war films tend to fall into the same trap of oversimplifying complex geopolitical issues in the interest of patriotism. While “Lone Survivor” attempts to tell an isolated tale of survival and sacrifice without really asking why, it occasionally falls back on the typical war film tropes. But despite other inconsistencies in tone and pacing, there are enough genuinely good moments to make it worthwhile.

The film is based on the true story of Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), a Navy SEAL who was, as the title suggests, the lone survivor of a covert operation in Afghanistan that went horribly wrong. His team is tasked with taking out a militia leader who has been known to kill U.S. Marines and terrorize villagers who are friendly with Americans. The mission is compromised, however, and the severely outnumbered four-man squad finds itself trying to escape through the mountains while fighting off a large militia.

The middle of the film is a lengthy and tense action scene between Luttrell’s men and the enemy militia. It does a decent job of showing the terrible violence of war. Peter Berg’s direction is visceral enough to at least feel realistic. However, cheesy, overly patriotic dialogue like “If you’re gonna die for your country, I’m gonna live for mine!” brings this part of the film down a notch.

The film isn’t too long; it’s just paced poorly. The action in the middle almost becomes boring, while the most interesting part, in which Luttrell is taken in by friendly villagers, feels too short. The father and son who help Luttrell recover and ultimately defend him from the militia could have been the best characters in the film. Unfortunately, they aren’t given enough screen time.

“Lone Survivor” never really bothers to worry about the complicated reasons for the American military’s presence in Afghanistan or the enemy militia’s motives for their actions. Luttrell’s story is a fascinating one, but true war stories are never as simple as good versus bad. The militia’s actions aren’t justifiable, but the film fails to explain why they occur. Fictional movie villains can be bad just for the sake of being bad, but real people don’t work that way.

At the very least, the film tries to humanize the friendly villagers more than other war films do. Again, those characters could have been developed much further, but for whatever reason, their scenes were cut short. Still, treating foreign civilians like actual human beings is something that many war films don’t do, making this one notable.

Despite its issues, “Lone Survivor” is a well-made war film with some powerful moments. Wahlberg’s performance lends appropriate gravity, and Peter Berg’s direction at least tries to show the horrors of war. With better pacing and more explanation of certain plot elements, it could’ve been excellent. However, without these it’s only decent.