"Lone Survivor," Peter Berg's new movie about a Navy SEAL mission gone horribly awry in the mountains of Afghanistan, gives away its ending in the title. But spoilers are beside the point for the gritty drama based on Marcus Luttrell's 2007 memoir, critics say, as Berg is more concerned with the bonds of brotherhood and the horrors of war. According to these reviews, the film succeeds in bringing the mission to life, although it avoids probing the deeper issues at hand.
The Times' Betsy Sharkey writes, "Berg has finally found the right war to fight and the right cast to fight it. … Whether it will be your kind of war depends." With its "gruesome energy" and "remarkable reality," Sharkey says, "this movie is not for the faint of heart."
The New York Times' A.O. Scott says, "'Lone Survivor' is not messing around." Berg, "an unusually thoughtful action director," has delivered "a combat movie with the spare, clean contours of an old Western, as attuned to ethical questions as it is to gunplay and hot pursuit." The defining trait of the film, Scott adds, "is professionalism. 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."
Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune says that roughly half of "Lone Survivor" is "standard-issue Hollywood … But the other half — the hour or so of writer-director Peter Berg's film dealing specifically with what happens when four men are cut off in Taliban country, scrambling under fire — is strong, gripping stuff, free of polemics, nerve-wracking in the extreme."
At its best, Phillips adds, the film "accomplishes its mission, which is to respect these men, dramatize what they went through and let the more troubling matters of moral consequence trickle in where, and how, they may."
The Boston Globe's Ty Burr, however, doesn't let the film off the hook as easily. He argues that "the wars we fight aren't simple anymore and the best recent movies about them — from 'Three Kings' to 'The Hurt Locker' to a dozen great documentaries like 'Restrepo' and 'Gunner Palace' — aren't simple either. They have to address contexts of why we're there, whether we're wanted, how culture clashes macro and micro, military and civilian, play themselves out. To not do so, as Peter Berg's rousing, well-made field tragedy does not, is to end up with an old-fashioned war movie."
Burr concludes, "Berg gives us courage under fire and a moving, bullet-chipped plaque of a drama. It's very good as far as it goes. But it doesn't go far enough anymore."
Nor is Burr alone in that sentiment. Michael O'Sullivan of the Washington Post writes, "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."