Lone Survivor – The Film Review

Ben Foster as Matt Axelson in the film Lone Survivor.  Photo from the Lone Survivor Facebook page.

Ben Foster as Matt Axelson in the film Lone Survivor. Photo from the Lone Survivor Facebook page.

I will preface this review by stating that the book Lone Survivor is a powerful and nearly traumatizing work. I recommend it to virtually anyone who wants to learn about war and its toll on the human mind. I have purchased the work twice, the second time to replace the first copy that was loaned out to a young soldier, then passed around among others, and never made its way back into my hands. My second copy suffered an identical fate. The book is one of two that I always recommend to people along with The Mission, The Men, and Me, by Pete Blaber. (Blaber’s book is also MIA due to my generous loaner program.) There are some technical inaccuracies within the book version of Lone Survivor, but I write those off to the actual author of the work, Patrick Robinson, not Marcus Luttrell. Other aspects of Luttrell’s story have been called into question by experts over the years but, since none of us were there, it is irrelevant. He can tell the story anyway he chooses. He earned that right. Regardless, I still recommend that you read it. But, having read it on more than one occasion, the existence of the book is one of the reasons my review of the film is not glowing with praise. Now, let’s talk about the movie.

Movie promo photo from Lone Survivor the movie.  Photo from Marcus Luttrell's Facebook page.

Movie promo photo from Lone Survivor the movie. Photo from Marcus Luttrell’s Facebook page.

Mark Wahlberg is not a great actor. There, I wrote it. Yes, he has made some entertaining, although B-rated, films over the years. He is popular as a modern action star and should be seen as a notch above many of the action film stars of this era, but, honestly, I questioned his selection as the lead in this film from the beginning. For me, the acting highlight of this film was in the performances of Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch as Matt Axelson and Danny Dietz. These men gave the performance one would expect as a tribute to brave warriors. I have been a fan of Foster for several years and his abilities to elicit emotion seem to improve with every role. The remainder of the cast did an admirable job in their roles but it really didn’t seem to be anything extraordinary compared to their previous work.

The cinematography was fairly impressive with its rapid action and first-person point of view during many of the battle scenes. The filming of the stunt work made virtually everyone in the packed theater cringe. Falling down a mountain over rocks and broken trees has been done many times in film but never to the degree of impact presented in Lone Survivor. The combination of filming, stunt work, and excellent sound mixing made you feel every impact as the flailing bodies of men tumbled violently down the craggy slopes. In a word, it was brutal. Those scenes really conjured memories of the book and Luttrell’s description of his own experiences as he and the others attempted a “controlled fall” down the mountain. As far as scenery is concerned, for several reasons, this film did not “feel” like Afghanistan to me. Yes, I know it was filmed in New Mexico and various other locations, but much of the landscape just didn’t feel right to me and it was distracting at times. If you have never seen Afghanistan, you won’t be looking for those things and they will not detract from your enjoyment of the film.

I will tell you that I recommend that you see this film. If for no other reason, it is a good depiction of the brotherhood and dedication that can be found in no other arena than that of men and women who put their lives on the line. At times, it can be difficult to watch. There were many sobbing viewers in the seats around me at the theater. It will touch you. It will make you feel the pain of loss that this nation has suffered, not just during this incident, but many, many incidents over the last 12 years of war. If you have lost friends or family to this war, you will feel it. Be prepared.

NOW, FOR THE CONTROVERSY.

I walked out of this film asking one question: Why? The film begins with the bold headline stating that it is, “Based on a true story.” That description is so loose as to be invalid. “Inspired by a true story” may have been a better choice of words. Entire portions of the film’s storyline bear no resemblance to the official story or the written work. Yes, to condense the story into a 2 hour film, certain liberties would have been necessary, but the liberties taken had no relevance to that process. I find it particularly troubling that LUttrell served as a technical advisor for the film and yet his story was completely changed. Most troubling was the method of death for Axelson, which, in the film, is complete fabrication. The climactic rescue battle at the end of the film, along with Luttrell’s killing of a Taliban with a knife, is also complete fiction. Even the leaving of Gulab in the village during the rescue is inaccurate.

Why? The story was so compelling and gut wrenching as told in the book. Why change it? The changes had no impact on the story and are completely irrelevant to how the film would have been made. It made no sense to me. I am sure those in the theater who haven’t read the book thought it was a great film. I left the theater in a state of confusion and almost anger. Did Luttrell ever stand up during this process and say, “Hey, wait a minute, that never happened!” or, “That isn’t true. Don’t use that scene.” The film begs that question. If he did, and was ignored by the writers and producers, you sure wouldn’t know it by his support and non-stop promotion of the film. He seems very happy with it. If it was my story, there is no way in hell I would throw my support behind it knowing full well it was completely fictionalized and fraudulent. Yes, I know these are harsh words. I can’t apologize for that. This film, in its overuse of embellishment and “artistic license”, detracts from the story of suffering, heroism, brotherhood, and loss as presented in Luttrell’s version of the story, in my opinion. I’m sorry, but I found it hard to stomach. If they ever make a film about my brothers who were lost in Afghanistan, and they alter the story to fit someone’s agenda, I will feel the same way.

I saw this film with a group of people who had not read the book and who have not been to war. That afforded me an interesting perspective following the viewing. I reserved my own opinion during our post viewing discussions until I could reconcile it all in my head. But, the result, in part, as told to me by those friends was that there was a certain degree of propaganda to this film. “In the end, we killed the bad guys and left the poor villagers behind to suffer at the hands of the Taliban.” And, “So, there are some good people in Afghanistan? Why are we abandoning them and giving up?” Those are direct quotes from my fellow viewers. Troubling, to say the least. Nothing is that simple and it was made even less simple by a film that refused to tell the true story of an already heroic tale.

See the film. Pay your respects to those who were lost during Operation Red Wings. But, make an effort to read the book as well. Find the truth within the film and discard the trash that was allowed to be inserted into the storyline. For all those who were lost, may you rest in peace.

Ross Elder