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Lone Survivor is a harrowing, hellacious war story that at times plays more like a Hollywood movie than a fact-based tragedy.

Local Hero

It might be an odd criticism to make, but perhaps writer-director Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor assumes a little too much audience familiarity with the real-life 2005 incident in Afghanistan which serves as the basis for this movie. Certainly Colorado residents will remember the name Danny Dietz, the Navy SEAL hailing from Littleton who died in the disastrous mission.

The elements are all there - three of the four members of Operation Red Wings die during a mission to assassinate or capture Ahmad Shah, an insurgent leader who, according to the movie at least, killed 20 American marines during the week leading up to Operation Red Wings.

It’s a brutal chapter in the war in Afghanistan. So many things went horribly wrong and the mission went down as the deadliest in Navy SEAL history.

As a civilian, though, it’s a challenge to determine the accuracy of the movie and the book by lone survivor Marcus Luttrell upon which it is based. How much was embellished? How much was altered for reasons of security and confidentiality? How much is good old fashioned FUD? There are certainly elements that feel like pure Hollywood, including some technical bits like an awkward use of slow motion, makeup and technical effects that actually take the viewer out of the moment.

Mission: Compromised

The trouble starts when the soldiers encounter an old man and two boys on a hillside overlooking the town which holds their target. War conventions dictate killing them is not an option, but that doesn’t stop the argument being raised that they’re every bit as much soldiers as they are villagers.

It’s an interesting spin on what many consider to be a baseless argument. As it stands, the decision to let them go led to other bad decisions that left the soldiers exposed to attack and bloodshed and at the mercy of crappy satellite communications lacking vital security protocols. Compounding the problems, the Quick Reaction Force was unable to react quickly and a rescue mission proved fatal for all on board a chopper that was brought down by an RPG.

Regardless of where Lone Survivor’s details veer from reality, the basics are brutal enough. But a grain of salt is necessary; keep in mind not everything portrayed on screen actually happened. Does that in itself devalue the movie? To a certain extent, yes. Particularly when proclamations of authenticity are made. But their are certainly plenty of great war movies that are also complete works of fiction (Apocalypse Now, for example), or that use real elements of war for the foundation of a fictional story (War Horse, to name one recent movie - and book and play).

Faulty Tribute

Lone Survivor, though, falls short of greatness based on its technical missteps alone.

As previously mentioned, there are poor technical choices and execution that take viewers out of the brutality and reveal pure Hollywood kitsch. Perhaps most egregious is a totally unnecessary use of slow motion. It’s used when the SEALs are effectively blown off the mountainside and sent tumbling down several thousand feet. It detracts from the whirlwind of activity.

Then there are the obvious bullet squibs tucked into the costume uniforms.

Another moment breaker occurs when Lutrell, as portrayed by Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter), is bloodied, cut, thrown around, beaten down and essentially worn to a fray. Then, inexplicably, at a key moment, he doesn’t look quite so bad, as if he’s cleaned up then had his makeup reapplied without much attention to continuity.

With issues like that, it’s not possible to call Lone Survivor a great movie, and to an extent it’s debatable if this is the movie tribute Operation Red Wings deserves. It is, though, the movie we’ve got and Wahlberg along with Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma), Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) and Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) do their part to present the soldiers’ dilemmas and traumatic experiences with respect and honor.