Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor

I decided to watch Lone Survivor after having read a positive review on The War Movie Buff’s blog (here). I did not regret it, although I have some reservations.

Talk about a doomed operation. Lone Survivor is based on a true story – Operation Red Wing – which went horribly wrong. Given how the movie starts and its title, it’s not a spoiler to mention that the operation only had one survivor played by Mark Wahlberg. 

The movie is set in Afghanistan in 2005. Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and three other Navy Seals are sent on a mission to capture or kill al Qaeda leader Ahmad Shahd. While hiding in the mountains goatherds literally stumble over them. The four men have a heated discussion about what they should do with them. Two want them dead, one wants to tie them and only Luttrell wants to let them go. Unfortunately their communication systems don’t work and they cannot reach their commander (Eric Bana) and ask for advice. Finally they let them go as that is in line with their rules of engagement. It’s clear that while this is the right thing to do, nothing good can come of it. And indeed, one of the herders runs down to the village and alerts the men surrounding Ahmad Shadh. What follows is an intense two hours of flight and fight.

First I’d like to say that the movie is well done. The pacing is good, there is some nice cinematography (stunning sunsets), the music works well, the action scenes are extremely realistic. The characters aren’t fully rounded, but that would be absurd in a movie like this. Last, but not least it’s very suspenseful, although we know there’s only one survivor.

I thought that in choosing this title and beginning of the film, which clearly shows that only Wahlberg’s character survived, the director stayed away from sentimentality and melodrama, which is so often annoying in movies of this type.

I’ve seen this compared to Black Hawk Down but I can’t see any similarity. I was reminded of Bravo Two Zero, in which the failing communication also played a major role. Lone Survivor has elements of both Act of Valor and the French Forces Spécilales, but I would say it’s better.

I’ve seen a lot of very harsh reviews of this movie. I think it’s not as bad as some say, but as is often the case with movies, which also find the approval of the military, there’s a mix up in the reception. One thing is the movie as such, and one can really not find a lot of flaws in that, the other thing is the reason that this movie was made in the first place. It depicts a true story and if you are against the way the US handle their war against terrorism, then you are probably inclined to be against this film. But that’s really mixing up two things. I thought that this movie stayed away from a lot of the glorifying we usually see in movies like this. It depicts  highly trained men on a mission that goes wrong. Sure, the characters want to kill as many Afghanis as they can, and they don’t try to apply a lot of empathy, but I’d like to see what all the liberal thinkers who criticized this film would do in a similar situation. Would they still try to understand and speak in a politically correct way about people who are trying to kill them?

I liked this film and the way it was done. I’m not keen on the US strategies against terrorism, but there is no denying that they exist. And there is no denying that the US military has some admirably well-trained soldiers who would do anything for each other.

Watch it if you like watching an action-driven movie inspired by a true story, leave it out if you expect criticism of the US military.

The Killing – Season 2 (2009)

The-Killing-Season-2

Strictly speaking The Killing 2 isn’t a war movie but since I reviewed Homeland I might as well review The Killing too. I watched season I first and because I thought it wasn’t bad at all, I went and got season 2 without knowing anything about the topic. Sarah Lund is a pretty unconventional detective that’s why she loses her job at the end of season 1 and is sent away from the capital to some frontier post.

When lawyer  Anne Dragsholm is found dead at a WWII memorial, her husband is arrested. The chief inspector has a feeling it can’t have been the husband and despite everything that has happened in series 1, he calls on Sarah Lund and asks her to come back to Copenhagen. Together with detective Strange, she is to look into the case.

At the same time Raben, an ex-soldier held at a detention facility, escapes and a young politician is made minister of justice. Soon after this, two other ex-soldiers are killed and other murders follow. The young politician is also looking into the case as it is possible that Islamic terrorists are at work.

Raben served in Afghanistan and after a few days of investigation it’s clear for Sarah Lund that he knew Anne Dragsholm and the dead soldiers. Very possibly something happened in Afghanistan which led to the killings.

If you are familiar with season 1 you know that Sarah Lund is unconventional but extremely clever and determined. She doesn’t leave any stones unturned. She even flies to Afghanistan looking for traces of a mysterious officer who is said to have killed civilians.

Like in the first series there are numerous red herrings, twists and turns, many suspects and the end is unexpected.

The season plays in a political and military environment and touches on personal and political themes. The tone is bleak and melancholic, the story gripping and the characters are all flawed and complex. This series is about more than just solving a murder, it includes sociological and political themes, portraits of dysfunctional families and a lot more.

I really liked this season. Much more than the longer season 1. I recommend it to anyone who likes thrillers and to those who like movies with military themes.

Special Forces aka Forces Spéciales (2011) French Special Forces on a Rescue Mission in Afghanistan

Forces Spéciales aka Special Forces is an exciting although controversial new French movie with an exciting cast. Apart from the lovely Diane Kruger (Joyeux Noël, Troy) there are Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator), Benoît Magimel (Intimate Enemies), Denis Ménochet (Inglourious Basterds, Robin Hood), Raphaël Personnaz (The Princess of Montpensier), Alain Figlarz (Bourne Identity, 36), Mehdi Nebbou (Body of Lies) and Tchéky Karyo (Bad Boys, The Patriot). I am excited because I didn’t expect an action movie like this to come from France and on this type of topic. There have been a few recent French movies which were outstanding but they focused on WWI, WWII or Algeria, hardly ever are they dedicated to modern-warfare and the special forces.

This is contemporary, fast-paced, action-driven, kick-ass and very authentic. Think The Hurt Locker meets Bravo Two Zero and you get Forces Spéciales. The movie is dedicated to soldiers fallen in Afghanistan and to the journalists who risk their lives in war zones. The support from the French military is obvious, the gear that is displayed is amazing. Due to this the movie is extremely authentic. I’m not into weapons but I like authenticity and this is as authentic as it can get regarding the equipment.

The story is pretty simple. The French war reporter Elsa Casanova (Diane Kruger) gets caught by the Taliban leader Ahmed Zaief in Afghanistan. She has been conducting interviews with women and called the leader “the butcher of Kabul” in her articles. The last of the women she tries to interview warns her. They are both in great danger. Too late. Zaief captures her informant first and then lures Elsa into an ambush. He threatens to kill her and films the execution of one of her assistants and sends it to France. The French president and his advisors are informed of her captivity and decide to send Special Forces to save her.

The group of men manage to free her but when they arrive at the pick up place, the helicopter doesn’t arrive. Similar like in Bravo Two Zero, they cannot get in contact with anyone as their radio equipment has been destroyed. Time was a crucial factor in the escape and now that the helicopter won’t come, the Taliban leader and his men close in on them. They have no other choice and try to escape over the mountains. This is a catastrophe. Not only are they not equipped for high altitudes and snow but they are hunted by a large group of men.

They have to stop and fight more than once. They also need to decide at some point whether to defend villagers who have helped them against the Taliban  or try to save themselves first. Each of the men is trained in another specialty. The scenes in which the sniper is center stage are, as is usual, the most exciting ones.

The group is very likable and because these are men who have undergone an amazing training, there is a bit of superhero flavour. And they have managed to squeeze in a love story.

The strength of this movie, apart from the suspense, action and the amazing gear that is displayed, is the cast. This is one of the most appealing casts I have seen in a long time.

I also liked the score a lot but it’s not original. It’s heavily influenced by other movies. Gladiator among others.

All in all, this is a highly watchable, action-packed movie with a solid story and great actors and certainly a movie fans of The Hurt Locker and Bravo Two Zero should not miss.

I mentioned initially that this is a controversial movie but didn’t say why. As authentic as the gear and the initial scenes look, there are a few instances which are not logical later on. Agreed. The movie hasn’t received a lot of positive reviews by the French press because it was felt to be too propagandist. I’m not sure if any movie that displays army equipment and is supported by the military has to be called propagandist. Maybe it is because more than an anti-war message it carries an anti-Taliban message? In any case, it’s more of an action than a war movie, this should have become obvious by now. I suggest you watch it and let me know how you feel.

Here are two very different trailers which will give you a good idea.

Lions for Lambs (2007)

I watched a lot of war movies before I started this blog. Unfortunately I cannot review them anymore after a while that’s why I have to re-watch a lot of them, also some that I didn’t really like the first time. Lions for Lambs is one of them. I can’t really say I didn’t like it. I watched it and forgot it the moment I turned off the TV.

I’m reading an interesting book at the moment. It hasn’t been translated but I add the full title for my German readers. The book is called “Antikriegsfilm – Zur Ästhetik, Geschichte und Theorie einer filmhistorischen Praxis” and it’s as dry as the title makes it sound. It’s an academic analysis of anti-war movies and I will write more about it soon. In any case, Lions for Lambs is mentioned as one of the typical modern – meaning post 9/11 – anti-war movies. The movie isn’t analysed as the book focusses on combat movies but it’s mentioned and since I had the DVD I watched it again.

I found it more interesting this time but still consider it to be a failed movie. It has an idea but no real story and in order to cover that up, Redford (he is the director as well) chose to tell three parallel stories. Obviously none of them on its own would have made a whole movie and together it’s a patchwork circling around the same theme: Is it justified to go to war in order to maintain peace?

The movie moves back and forth between three different stories. One focusses on cocky senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) who wants to convince journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) that it makes sense to send troops to Afghanistan and that this time they will win the war. He says that he has certain information that there is an entry route from Iraq, crossing Iran, into Afghanistan. Roth is a very clever journalist and has soon found out that what he wants her to write is pure propaganda. She thinks she should write an entirely different piece instead.

While these two are discussing, a Harvard professor of political science (Robert Redford) tries to motivate his most promising student. He tells him about two other students he had, two people from underprivileged families, who finally signed up to assure their university fees will get paid. Lack of money and misguided idealism made them take a hasty decision.

While they all discuss, the two former students have just been shot down over Afghanistan. They were part of the troops sent by senator Irving. They hit the ground alive but are soon surrounded by enemy troops and spend the rest of the movie not making a difference but fighting for their lives.

All the people in the three stories are trying to make up their minds about extremely important questions and decisions. The story that worked best for me and which I really enjoyed is the one between Tom Cruise’s and Meryl Streep’s character. They are such excellent actors, it’s a joy to watch them.

The biggest problem of Lions for Lambs is that its intentions are far better than its execution. Still, if you want to see a movie that shows the different arguments, pro and contra military intervention, and if you don’t mind that it is very wordy, you might like it.

9th Company aka 9 Rota (2005) or “No one has ever managed to conquer Afghanistan”

Many have called 9th Company a Russian Platoon. I think it would be more accurate to call it a mix of Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill. I compare it with Full Metal Jacket because of the first part, that is taking place in the boot camp, and with Hamburger Hill because the second part is also based on a true infantry combat story that consisted of the holding of a hill. But be it as it may, it is easily understood what it means  that this movie deserves to be named among the very best of its kind: It is extremely good. And in some respects (e.g. character development, emotions) it is even better than the aforementioned.

We watch the 9th Company from their early days in boot camp in Uzbekistan until they are finally flown to Afghanistan. The boot camp part is one of the best I have ever seen. And its end, the night before they depart to Afghanistan, is unique. This scene shows the whole difference between this Russian movie and any American infantry combat movie I have ever seen. The soldiers show emotions, even those of fear and sadness and speak about them openly. They also talk about why they volunteered to go to Afghanistan and one of them, a painter says: “War is only life and death, nothing unneccessary”, meaning he thinks it is utterly beautiful. Of course he is immediately contradicted by others.

The long boot camp sequence and the following early days in Afghanistan are heavy and foreboding. It is a slow and effective build-up until the final intense combat part.

The 9th company was among the last to leave Afghanistan. Their last mission was to hold Hill 3234. A group of only 36 soldiers fought against the superior number of 400 Afghan rebels. We see many of those that we got to know and like during the movie get killed. There is a moment when those who survived go completely mental so that in the end they are victorious however highly decimated. But this battle is historical for other reasons as well. It was the last battle in the last war the crumbling Soviet union was ever to fight.

The key message is delivered early on, when the recruits learn about the culture and the land they are going to invade. The instructor who teaches them says literallay : “In all of history, no one has ever managed to conquer Afghanistan. No one. Ever”

The movie is gripping from beginning to end. And the characters are remarkably interesting. Even the instructor at the boot camp, an apparently mean and sadistic brute, is shown in all his complexity and we understand him in the end. What I liked best is the inside look at the Afghan terrain. I had a feeling to understand why nobody except those who lived there for centuries was ever capable of mastering this terrain. Those mountains with their tunnel systems are not unlike the Vietnamese  jungle. An abundance of hiding places; the enemy could be anywhere at any time.

This movie gets 5/5 stars. Watch it!

Brothers (2009): Post-traumatic Stress Unrealistically Embedded

I am in two minds about Brothers. In parts I liked it in parts it made me frown at the amount of implausible details. Escapism built on a serious topic.

A young Captain, Sam (Tobey Maguire), married to a lovely wife (Natalie Portman), is sent back to Afghanistan where he was stationed many times before. Just before he leaves his delinquent older brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) is released from prison. Shortly after arriving back in Afghanistan Sam´s helicopter is shot down. Two officers are sent to inform his wife, Grace, of Sam´s death.

From that moment on Tommy changes a great deal and  assists the young woman and her two little daughters wherever he can. Soon they become close friends. Tommy and Grace discover that they have quite a lot in common despite not having liked each other in the beginning.

What none of them knows, Sam is a POW. During the months of this captivity he has to endure torture and cruelties. In the end he is even forced to do something he won´t be able to forgive himself. When he is finally freed he is not the man he used to be. He is withdrawn and doesn’t talk. He seems to suffer a great deal and accuses his wife and his brother of having had an affair. The situation grows more and more acute until it escalates in the end.
I do not deny that I liked watching this movie since it is a well done production. The score is nice, Jake Gyllenhaal is convincing (but then I have been his fan ever since I watched Donnie Darko), the pictures are appealing, individual scenes are captivating. Nevertheless this is not a good movie. Many details are highly unrealistic. The way the soldiers get captured is not convincing nor is the fact that Sam is reported to be dead and not just MIA. His wife never even questions this although nothing has been found of him or his belongings. His return is also very abrupt. No questions are asked and he seems to not be getting proper treatment even though he shows signs of severe post-traumatic stress.

All these elements are quite anachronistic. Relics of another time, a time when there was hardly any psychological treatment available and the awareness of PTSD was very low. You might expect this in a Vietnam movie, but not in one dealing with a contemporary conflict.
The dynamics of a dysfunctional family are shown convincingly. The father, a  Vietnam vet with an alcohol problem, plays the two brothers off against each other. Obviously he favours the one who opted for the same career. The development of Tommy´s character is also very well done. He becomes more and more endearing towards the end of the movie.
Tobey Maguire playing a  Captain is not credible at all. I just did not buy it. He should have played a lower rank. He seems far too young to be a captain.
This movie is for Jake Gyllenhaal Fans, people, who go for dysfunctional family stories and all those who would like to see a movie where the key message is: You will be healed as soon as you can talk about the shit you have done and been through.

All those who would like to see a realistic coming-home story of a war veteran should not go for it. The aim of this movie was to be dramatic, not realistic.

Since this movie seems to be an American remake of a Danish movie I might try to see the other one. It would be interesting to see how that was handled.