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With few bright spots, ‘Lone Survivor’s’ score feels as political as the film

lone survivor score explosions in the sky steve jablonsky review

Lone Survivor
Composed by Explosions in the Sky and Steve Jablonsky
Metropolis Movie Music

One of the more surprising developments this winter has been the financial success of Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, a half true-to-life action thriller about 2005’s failed Operation Red Wings. Against the Oscar fare that typically hits multiplexes this time of year, it’s grossed an estimated $108 million as of February 7. It’s also fueled debate over the authenticity of the film’s events as adapted from Patrick Robinson’s gussied-up memoir. In addition to multiplying the number of Taliban forces Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell and his team fought, Lone Survivor makes little effort to complicate U.S. involvement in the Middle East beyond black-and-white terms. While some of the blame falls squarely on Berg’s (and Robinson’s) shoulders, Lone Survivor’s score deserves some heat, too.

Enlisting the services of Texas post-rockers Explosions in the Sky and composer Steve Jablonsky aren’t unexpected choices for Berg. He used the former in 2004’s Friday Night Lights and partnered with the latter in Battleship, his summer blockbuster-that-never-was. Despite their co-credits, however, Explosions in the Sky dominate much of Lone Survivor’s music. Their opening track “Warriors” features overproduced drones and ambient noises, a foggy wall of atmospheric sounds that precede the carnage yet to come. The following track, “Waking Up,” will feel familiar to fans of the band’s work, as a timid guitar’s slurred chords build in front of a weighty, rolling snare drum. The end result combines for an affecting sequence early in the film, adding transcendence and reflection to an early morning race between Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch’s SEALs.

Other highlights include “Checkpoints,” which features a fantastic piano line, and “The Decision.” As its title implies, the track is heavy and ponderous, and plays underneath a crucial turning point. Single guitar lines hover and echo but never stray far from the track’s ambivalence. Like their collaboration with David Wingo in Prince Avalanche, bright spots in Lone Survivor are an encouraging sign the band has matured beyond simple meditations, but the score’s best track, “Murphy’s Ridge,” is vintage sound. With rolling toms and a trepidation between major and minor keys, it’s a fine example of introducing complexity in a film through music alone. The labored introduction crescendos into a progression not unlike John Murphy’s “In the House, In a Heartbeat”; it exudes beauty and ugliness simultaneously.

As for Jablonsky, his influence feels thorough despite only four writing credits. Take Explosions’ “Seal Credo / Landing” which feels undeniably up its own rear end. “Briefing” is sludgy and dissonant, borrowing from those same spacey soundscapes in “Warriors,” but its thudding drums make for a piece that’s too heavy handed — and heavy-handed just might be Jablonsky’s middle name. His own “47 Down” plunges right into the  thick of things with blasting drums and guttural electronic sounds that feel like a holdover from his Transformers scores. The added piano makes for an acoustic choice that blends with Explosions in the Sky’s repertoire, but the production is too distorting, too much. Likewise, “Letter Received / Taliban Attacks” feels rote, with overly busy percussion and hacky faux screams in the distance. It’s only in “Lone Survivor” where Jablonsky and Explosions in the Sky seem to be on the same wavelength, as the composer finds a soaring simplicity just by slowing things down.

As the penultimate track, “Lone Survivor” is too little, too late, and Jablonsky’s involvement in propelling action sequences makes it clear Berg had little interest in introducing nuance (see also: “Steve did the last reel”), despite his claims to the contrary. The avalanche of revisions and corrections against Robinson’s beefed-up writing are a reminder that context is especially important when recreating real life events of such a magnitude. Thus, the manner in which Berg molds his scenes with music seems equally important when considering the score of Lone Survivor. Save for a few bright spots, the work feels political, dividing Lone Survivor’s players along clear lines and distinguishing between explicitly “good” and “bad” individuals through simplistic compositions. The end result, as diabolical music plays under generic brown actors, is more vilification of the enemy than reverence for any heroes.

— David Klein


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