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REVIEW: Lone Survivor (2013) September 21, 2016

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

Wars are exciting because they are unpredictable. For many of its participants such unpredictability often manifests itself in best-laid plans not surviving first contact with reality, sometimes with catastrophic and tragic results. This might happen even to the technologically most advanced militaries and best trained units. One such example could be found in an incident that happened in 2005, during the latest (and still ongoing) war in Afghanistan. US military operation against local insurgents ended in a way that provided Marcus Luttrell, one of its participants, rather telling title for his non-fiction book. It also provided title for its film adaptation, Lone Survivor, directed in 2013 by Peter Berg.

The film depicts Operation Red Wings, attempt of US military to kill or capture Ahmad Shah (played by Yousuf Azami), leader of insurgents in mountainous Kunar Province who was responsible for the deaths of dozens of Marines. Task of locating Shah is given to the four-men US Navy Seals team led by Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch). Murphy and his three men – snipers Matthew “Axe” Axelson (played by Ben Foster), Lutttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg) and communications expert Danny Dietz (played by Emile Hirsch) – are inserted on the mountains and things soon begin to go wrong. Local geography conspires to make their radio communications unreliable and, to make things worse, they are discovered by group of villagers who soon notify Ahmad Shah and his men about small American unit, now forced to battle numerically superior enemy without any help and realistic prospect of extraction.

Berg (who also wrote screenplay) gained some important experience with military-themed films due to his directing of ill-fated blockbuster Battleship. Adaptation of real-life events proved to be more suitable for his artistic temperament. The films is directed energetically, with New Mexico mountain locations convincingly standing for Afghanistan and group of four very talented actors developing strong characters. This is especially the case with Kitsch, whose character of an ill-fated officer brings back memories of equally tragic character in ill-fated second season of True Detective. The action, which takes part in the second part of the film is, however, more interesting than the first part which is nothing more than routine exposition. Berg, who appears to have positive attitude towards US military and its activities in Afghanistan, for the most part stays away from politics and Lone Survivor doesn’t succumb to cheap jingoistic propaganda.

Lone Survivor, however, disappoints at its very ending. The script, at least in broader terms, tends to stick with the facts and shows how Luttrell was ultimately saved by Afghan villagers. The reasons why (which had something to do with local customs and politics) are never properly explained, and the way Luttrell is protected from Ahmad Shah and his men descends into rather unconvincing (and unhistorical) gun battle. This was missed opportunity and because of it Lone Survivor looks unfinished. It looks even worse after unavoidable comparisons with Black Hawk Down, film that many years ago portrayed similar incident. It would be too harsh to call Lone Survivor a failure, but it is only marginally better than many other Hollywood films that actually deserve to be called as such.

RATING: 5/10

Friday Night Lights (2004) September 3, 2005

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

On this side of the Big Pond sport is seen mainly as an entertainment or occasional excuse for people to indulge themselves in atavistic tribal violence. In America sport seems to be a dominating force to which any other aspects of life should be sacrificed. One of the films to explore such phenomenon is FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, 2004 drama directed by Peter Berg.

The plot is based on the non-fiction bestselling book by Buzz Bissinger which chronicled 1988 season of Permian Panthers, high school football team from the town of Odessa in Western Texas. The team’s past victories at the state championships appear to represent the only thing the townspeople are proud of and experienced coach Gary Gaines (played by Billy Bob Thornton) is hired to secure another title. During the season he will have to face many problems because the young athletes – hailed as local deities – have many personal issues, while the team itself is under enormous pressure and scrutiny.

Despite direction that often looks too influenced by MTV and cinematography which is too dark, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS gives good insight in the sport and local high school teams as the defining element of the life in many small American towns. Friday night games affect everyone, especially young men who are celebrated as gods and for whom the end of high school looks like the end of life. Berg and his co-writer David Aaron Cohen explain this phenomenon with great clarity and good eye for social and psychological observation. Characters and their dilemmas are well-written and played by good actors, although Billy Bob Thornton’s role appears to be underwritten. On the other hand, as the plot advances to its unconventional albeit predictable and un-cathartic conclusion, it becomes apparent that FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS will fail to have an impact to the audience alien to American sport culture. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is a good film, but it is preaching to the converted.

RATING: 6/10 (++)