Lone Survivor


Brothers in arms.

Brothers in arms.

(2013) War Drama (Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Yousef Azami, Ali Suliman, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig, Rich Ting, Dan Blizerian, Jerry Ferrara, Rick Vargas, Scott Elrod, Gregory Rockwood, Ryan Kay, Patrick Griffin, Josh Berry, Eric Steinig, David Shepard, Justin Tade, Sterling Jones, Jason Riggins. Directed by Peter Berg

When we invaded Afghanistan in the wake of 9-11, I’m sure the Russians were chuckling ruefully to themselves…as were perhaps the ghosts of British colonialists, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. This land of unforgiving terrain has been repelling invasions for thousands of years.

But since that’s where the Taliban were and they had some dealings with Al Qaeda, it became a necessity that we go in there and clean house or at least that was the school of thought at the time. That we are still there 14 years later is neither surprising nor a reason to be proud.

In 2005, a group of Navy SEALS were sent into a remote area of Afghanistan to discover whether a high-ranking Taliban leader who had been responsible for the murder of a bunch of marines earlier that year was in fact hiding in a village there. Once they had established he was there, they were to call in the troops and help take him out. The problem was that communications in the area were dicey; secure lines and unsecured satellite phones alike worked only intermittently and the men going in were fully aware of that.

Those men were Michael Murphy (Kitsch) who commanded the mission, Danny Dietz (Hirsch), Matt “Axe” Axelson (Foster) and Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg). Among those supporting them back at base is the young and eager Shane Patton (Ludwig) and their company commander Erik Kristensen (Bana), professionals all.

Things go sideways when a trio of goat herders stumble on them as they observe the village. One of them is carrying a military grade walkie talkie. Given the venomous rage that one of the boys looks at the SEALs with, it seems likely that if these herders aren’t Taliban they are at least informants. This leaves the men with a dilemma – whether to kill the goat herders outright, to tie them up which if they were unable to extricate themselves would certainly lead to them freezing to death in the night, or to let them go and abort the mission which would then having them chased by the much larger force of Taliban fighters than they were led to believe was in the village to begin with.

They choose the latter force, keeping to their rules of engagement even though all four of them knows what it could mean – and what it means is a couple of hundred well-armed hostiles chasing them through unfamiliar terrain and with the communications as iffy as they are, help may not be on the way for a good long time. This band of brothers will have to use every bit of courage and training to get them through this rapidly deteriorating situation, and rely on each other more than they ever have before.

This is based on actual events. Operation Red Wings ended up pretty much the way it is depicted here, and for the most part this is what these men went through although some of it has to be speculation. In any case, the movie basically from the time the SEALs let the goat herders go to the end is a pure adrenaline rush, harrowing in suspense but beautiful in how these men not only depend on each other but genuinely love one another as men who have defended their lives together truly can.

This isn’t a movie you go see especially for the acting, although the performances are pretty solid and nobody really disgraces themselves. The camaraderie is captured nicely and that is really the center of the movie; in the field, you fight for the guy/gal on your left, not for some idea or political point – and they’re fighting for you in the same way.

While I can’t say for sure if this gives audiences a good sense of what it’s like to be in a combat situation having never been in one myself, I can say that the combat sequences are very intense, maybe too much so for those who are sensitive or easily disturbed. I do like that although there are some genuinely nasty customers among the Taliban, not all the Afghans are portrayed as hateful. I certainly found myself wanting to find out more about what pushtanwali meant.

Where the film is less successful is telling us who these men were. We know how hard they fought, how fiercely they protected one another but I would have liked to know more about them. In a sense that  even though we feel what they go through, we are unable to mourn them as effectively because they are yet strangers to us, despite spending two hours with them. If Berg had succeeded in doing that as well, this would have been contending for a Best Picture Oscar, but as it is he has delivered a really good film that I can recommend to pretty much anyone without reservation.

REASONS TO GO: Harrowing and moving. A fitting tribute to the men and women of our armed forces.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense for some. Really doesn’t give us as good a sense of who these men were as I would have liked.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of salty SEAL’s language as well as a ton of war violence and some fairly disturbing and graphic scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the fire fight with the Taliban is depicted in the film as lasting three days, the real life one lasted five. Marcus Luttrell would be awarded the Navy Cross for his valor in the incident.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Hawk Down

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar begins!

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Captain Phillips


Tom Hanks draws the line at being waterboarded for another Oscar.

Tom Hanks draws the line at being waterboarded for another Oscar.

(2013) True Life Drama (Columbia) Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Catherine Keener, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Omar Berdouni, Mohamed Ali, Issak Farah Samatar, Angus MacInnes, Amr El-Bayoumi, Stacha Hicks, Maria Dizzia, Georgia Goodman. Directed by Paul Greengrass

Most of us at one time or another will face a situation that will put our resolve to the test. Who we are and where our moral compass points to are defined by those moments. Few of us however will face that moment in a life or death situation where not only our own lives hang in the balance but other lives as well.

Richard Phillips (Hanks) of Vermont is a ship captain, a man used to commanding a merchant vessel filled with cargo, transporting it from one spot in the world to another. He’s not overly fond of the run up the West African coast past Somalia, a trouble spot from which piracy has become a commonplace means of acquiring wealth but it’s a job and he approaches it as such. He literally kisses his wife (Keener) goodbye at the airport, grabs his lunchpail and hardhat and goes to work.

But whereas he adopts a very blue collar approach to his job, he is certainly a leader. He expects his men to do their jobs efficiently and well and tends to be a bit of a hard ass. His officers respect him and while there is some grumbling among the union rank and file, isn’t there always?

For Muse (Abdi), life is much less clear cut. He lives in an impoverished Somali fisherman off of coastal waters that have been overfished to the point that they are literally barren of life. A local warlord insists that Muse and other village men go out and hijack another ship, even though they had just successfully taken another ship the previous week. Muse knows that this cycle will continue and has his eyes on a big score, enough so he can take what proceeds he can and move his family somewhere safer.

For Muse and the three men in his command – young Bilal (Abdirahman), on his first mission; Elmi (Ali) the clever driver and mechanic, and Najee (Ahmed) who chews khef leaves nonstop, making him aggressive and angry which is never a good combination. They spot the Maersk Alabama making its way up the coast and recognize this as their golden once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Captain Phillips watches the skiff approach at speed and knows instinctively that these men aren’t there to fish. His pleas for assistance are at first met with skepticism but after he fends off one attack, the second leads to a confrontation that will eventually involve the U.S. Navy, a lifeboat and a hair-trigger situation that could lead to the deaths of not only the pirates but Captain Phillips himself.

Greengrass, who previously gave us a docudrama called United 93 which was one of the best (if not the best) movies on the events of 9-11 yet, is adept at taking a situation that was headline news, enough so that most of us know how it ends and nonetheless keeps us on the edge of our seats. Much of that falls to Hanks, one of the most beloved actors of his generation. Few actors are as likable as Hanks who is not so much the guy next door but the guy down the street who lets you borrow his riding lawnmower on a scorching Saturday afternoon in August. The man is able to project such decency that we are immediately drawn into concern for Phillips’ safety even despite the kind of New England frosty demeanor.

Most of us who are fairly aware of the world around us know pretty much what happened during the real events surrounding Captain Phillips and the Maersk Alabama in 2009 but most of us aren’t fully aware of the details. That allows us to be caught up in the tension and atmosphere and given the likability of Hanks we become fully invested in his fate.

Greengrass also makes the pirates somewhat victims of circumstance; you get the sense young Muse (who in reality was 18 years old when these events transpired) would have preferred a more honest day’s work. He has few options however and does what he must; the rail-thin Abdi gets some sympathy despite the brutality of some of his crew who are a hair’s breadth from losing it the longer things go.

It should be mentioned that the crew members of the Maersk Alabama have disagreed vociferously with the way events were portrayed in the film and have brought suit against the parent company and Phillips, claiming his recklessness brought them into waters he knew hijackings had taken place in, all to save money by shortening the trip.

That said, the movie works as entertainment and is certainly going to make a lot of best-of-the-year lists come December. Few heroes measure up to their own legend and I’m sure the real Captain Phillips probably doesn’t hold a candle to the Tom Hanks version. Regardless of how events actually played out, this was nevertheless an extraordinary event that will put your emotions through a wringer as depicted here and that can be an exhilarating thing.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat suspense. Terrific performances by Hanks and Abdi as the adversaries.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much shaky-cam for my comfort.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of substance abuse, a good deal of violence as well as a couple of bloody images, and sustained tension throughout. There are a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The shipboard filming was done aboard the Alexander Maersk, sister ship to the Maersk Alabama.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Argo

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Tomorrow, When the War Began

Act of Valor


Act of Valor

An unusual sighting of the rare Flying Seal.

(2012) Action (Relativity) Active Duty U.S. Navy Seals, Roselyn Sanchez, Nestor Serrano, Alex Veadov, Jason Cottle, Artie Malesci, Marc Margulies, Dimeter Marinov, Ailsa Marshall, Gonzalo Menendez, Emilio Rivera, Dan Southworth. Directed by Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh

 

We owe so much to our men and women in uniform. Say what you will about the reasons we send them out to risk their lives for us, they still serve with the knowledge that they may be called upon to die for their country and yet they still do it. There’s no doubt that our military personnel should be given the highest respect and honors by all of us and for the most part, most of us feel that way about them.

We can be proud that our service people are some of the most highly trained badasses on the face of the Earth. From the Army Rangers to the Air Force fighter pilots to the entire God Damn U.S. Marine Corps, these are guys (and gals) you should be VERY thankful are on our side.

Some of the badassest guys and gals in our military are the Navy SEALs. These are the same guys who got Bin Laden and rescued the Captain of that merchant vessel from Somali pirates. When they are given a mission, they execute it – and sometimes the cost is tragically high.

A group of SEALs led by Chief Dave and Lt. Cmmdr. Rorke (both first names only – which apparently is also the names of the real-life SEALs that portray them) have been given the task of rescuing a female CIA agent (Sanchez) who has been kidnapped by a Ukrainian arms dealer who supplies to the Chechnyans (Veadov). She is being tortured in some central American hell hole but the SEALs come in and against a well-armed numerically superior force pick up the woman (who has been brutally tortured) and take her to safety.

Except their work isn’t done quite yet. It turns out that the arms dealer has a link to a jihadist (Cottle) who is smuggling in suicide bombers using high-tech vests with porcelain ball bearings that can take out an entire city block, which in those numbers would bring our economy to its knees. The SEALs must find the jihadist and stop him before his plan comes to fruition.

Doubtlessly you have heard by now that the SEALs in the movie are played by real life SEALs who are on active military duty. It sounds a bit gimmicky – and it is. It also plays a lot like a recruitment video, which isn’t surprising since it supposedly started out life as one but became more of a traditional movie in which SEAL tactics and personnel were used to illustrate just what they do.

I don’t have any objection to that. I don’t mind learning what life is like from the perspective of someone like the men here, who actually put their lives on the line on a regular basis. I don’t mind being educated, but I do object to propaganda…which this, thankfully, isn’t (although some critics seem to think it is). This isn’t some Fox News rant about how great the military is and how the liberals of our nation are killing our freedoms yadda yadda yadda; this is meant to realistically portray conditions in the field and the kind of things our fighting men and women have to go through.

Is it Hollywoodized? Sure, at least just a bit. The dialogue is heavy on the pound-your-chest macho aphorisms. The situations resolve themselves far more neatly than they do in real life – or even in the field. I may be no military man but I’ve enough common sense to realize that few missions this complicated end up as cut and dried as this one does – there are always curveballs and snafus. In fact lest we forget, the term “snafu” itself is military in origin.

The directors, who go by the name of the Bandido Brothers, prove to be very capable directors of action sequences. They boast that live ammo was used in many of the sequences and while that does add to the realism quotient, it makes me uncomfortable. No matter how many precautions you can take, you don’t mess with live ammo. Nobody’s life is worth shooting a movie for.

I wound up liking the movie and Da Queen had a good catharsis of her own by the movie’s end (she comes from a military family so it hit home with her a bit deeper than it did with me). In fact, those who do have any sort of military connection will find something that resonates here, from the goodbyes to loved ones being deployed into harm’s way to the hasty phone calls from God-knows-where that only make you miss them more.

I wound up appreciating the movie and admiring it from a technical standpoint, but still I couldn’t get over the feeling that it was a bit gimmicky with the literal stunt casting. For my money, I’d rather have these men out in the field doing what they do best or better still, home with their families  rather than in front of the cameras. Still, the movie was much more entertaining than I anticipated so it’s definitely worth a look-see.

REASONS TO GO: Great kinetic action sequences.  

REASONS TO STAY: More recruitment film than film. SEALs are not necessarily good actors and the sometimes stiff jingoistic dialogue doesn’t help them much. A little gimmicky in the end.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly graphic torture sequences as well as military violence. There are also some bad words here and there but probably nothing compared to the language SEALS use during actual operations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially the plan was for the SEALs to be portrayed by actors but when several SEALs who were asked to consult for accuracy complained that the SEALs in the film weren’t being portrayed accurately, it was decided to have actual active duty military in the cast portraying those roles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews are poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Top Gun

MILITARY LOVERS: The equipment used here is all currently in use by the U.S. Military, giving those who are into military things a reason to drool.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Vampires