Critical Mass: Is 'Lone Survivor' as great as 'Saving Private Ryan'?

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Image Credit: Gregory R. Peters

Lone Survivor tells the true story of elite SEAL Marcus Luttrell and his band of brothers, who were sent on a dangerous 2005 mission in Afghanistan that quickly went FUBAR. When the four soldiers — played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch — are discovered in hostile territory by shepherds who may or may not be aligned with the Taliban, they have to decide whether to execute their captives and continue their stealth operation or release them and risk being surrounded by numerically superior forces.

The soldiers quickly realize that it’s a life-or-death decision, one that not all of them will survive. When the Taliban confronts the isolated SEALs and the bullets begin to fly, the subsequent firefight is one of the most harrowing ever recorded on film. “The action that follows is excruciating and relentless, and [director Peter] Berg doesn’t spare the audience,” writes EW’s Chris Nashawaty. “If anything, he rubs our noses in the blood, sweat, and tears of combat.”

Lone Survivor eschews politics and instead aims for bluntly proving the wisdom of Robert E. Lee, who once said, “It is well that war is so terrible — lest we should grow too fond of it.”

Advertisements for the film have raised comparisons to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, but the more apt comparison might be Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott’s 2001 war movie about the failed rescue of American soldiers in Somalia. Before you head to the theater, read what some of the nation’s leading critics are saying about Lone Survivor, which opened Dec. 25 but expands across the country today.

Chris Nashawaty (Entertainment Weekly)
“Berg has fast become a sort of specialist in macho cinema. But that style of storytelling is trickier to pull off than it seems. It needs to give us more than gung ho military jargon, backslapping band-of-brothers camaraderie, and crimson arias of violence. It requires nuance. And in Lone Survivor, Berg never quite finds the right balance. It isn’t clear what he wants to tell us besides ‘War is hell.”’

Joe Morganstern (Wall Street Journal) ▲
“All four performances are first-rate, and the action is staged with shattering intensity. Literally and graphically shattering. The film is a celebration of courage, and the brotherhood of warriors facing unfathomable danger in the service of their country.”

Betsy Sharkey (Los Angeles Times)
“Berg is more interested in how men deal with battle than the ideals or the politics that put them there. What the movie achieves, with a gruesome energy and a remarkable reality, is a firefight. … Captured in uncompromising detail by director of photography Tobias Schliessler, this movie is not for the faint of heart.”

Dana Stevens (Slate)
Lone Survivor is almost an antiwar film: It evokes the confusion, panic, and raw fear of battle with such vividness you want to run out of the theater. Ultimately, Berg seems less concerned with this war in particular than he is with the experience of fighting in any war.”

Michael O’Sullivan (Washington Post)
“What’s missing here is something, or rather, someone, to care about. The film presumes our emotional investment in Luttrell and his fellow soldiers’ mission, simply by virtue of — well, it’s never quite clear what. … They’re movie stars in camo, pretending to be massacred for the camera.”

Geoff Pevere (Toronto Globe and Mail)
“Part of [the story] is also a cliché, a myth as old as the Alamo, and the true test of that myth is how it holds up against the cold scrutiny of truth and experience. And it’s a myth that writer-director Berg, for all the intimacy with which he wishes to acquaint us with the sensation of being shot to bits, doesn’t even try to test.”

Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle)
“The actors, especially Wahlberg as Luttrell and Ben Foster as Matt Axelson, are convincing in their humanity, agony and ferocity, but there is no escaping a sameness that sets in by the second or third time the men are shown tumbling down a stone hill and landing on rocks.”

Justin Chang (Variety)
“The actors acquit themselves well in and out of combat, with the ever-chameleonlike Foster disappearing the most into his role as Axe, every bit as sharp and deadly as his nickname. Kitsch … shows his own promising signs of career rehabilitation here as Murphy, the team’s goodhearted, self-sacrificing leader.”

Ty Burr (Boston Globe)
Lone Survivor is a paean to the harsh romance of endurance. Still, what happens if you’re the only one who endures? There are aspects of this story that don’t make it into Berg’s account and that might have made for a richer, more ambiguous, more ambitious film — a story true to both a soldier’s experience and to human nature.”

A.O. Scott (New York Times)
“The defining trait of Lone Survivor — with respect to both its characters and Mr. Berg’s approach to them — is professionalism. It is a modest, competent, effective movie, concerned above all with doing the job of explaining how the job was done.”

Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter)
Lone Survivor no doubt accomplishes everything it wants to achieve: It drops the viewer right in with the SEALs, makes you admire their toughness, bravery and abilities, and puts you through the wringer. It also makes you realize that, if they’re forced to make a tough decision, it might not be the right one.”

Lone Survivor
Overall Metacritic rating (1-100): 59
Rotten Tomatoes: 73 percent

Rated: R
Length: 121 Minutes
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch
Directed by Peter Berg
Distributor: Universal

[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that U.S. Marines were involved in the Battle of Mogadishu, the 1993 clash depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down. U.S. forces actually were composed primarily of Army Rangers and Special Forces.]

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