Director Peter Berg has never shied away from films about manly men, especially when those manly men are in the military. I think he shares the same fantastical idea that Michael Bay does that if you hang around enough men in uniform, people might actually start looking at you as a tough guy. Why that is important to them, I'll never understand. And the fact that it's delusional makes it all the more curious. But in works like THE RUNDOWN, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and THE KINGDOM, Berg has shown a real flair for staging impressive action sequences that actually make sense and aren't simply a blur of explosions, screaming and bullet fire. (Yes, I realize FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is a sports movie, but if you think it's any less an action film than one with soldiers, watch it again.)
With his last two films, HANCOCK and BATTLESHIP, Berg hasn't lost his ability to stage solid action, but he lost himself in the silly, fantastical elements of those movies, and the work has suffered as a result. But with his latest, the wildly violent LONE SURVIVOR, Berg returns to familiar stomping grounds and the results are quite impressive, in a brutal, hard-R-rated way. The film is the story of the failed 2005 SEAL Team 10 Operation Red Wings mission to kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, told through the eyes of the mission's lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell (Berg adapted the book Luttrell co-wrote with Patrick Robinson).
Berg's personal mission seems to be to capture these harrowing and terrifying events as accurately and realistically as possible, and on that front he has succeeded. Every bullet wound, broken bone and other painful result of this miscalculated mission is on display, complete with stomach-turned sound effects and appropriate blood splatter (the makeup team was led by Howard Berger of KNB Efx, who also do "The Walking Dead," so that should tell you something). Mark Wahlberg plays Luttrell, and it's made very clear from the get-to that there is nothing particularly special about this soldier compared to the three other men who were on the mission with him. He just happened to live. Wahlberg is not playing Luttrell like some kind of super soldier or larger-than-life figure; he's just a man with military training and a bit of luck on his side.
Rounding out the group of four are Taylor Kitsch (in his best film role to date) as Michael Murphy, the always-reliable Emile Hirsch as Danny Dietz, and a laser-focused Ben Foster as Matt Axelson. Of the three, it's Foster you'll remember the most. Axelson sustains a head injury after one of many tumbles the men must take down rock hillsides to escape the Taliban forces, and his begins to lose his grip on reality as a result. He dips in and out of a clear idea of what is going on in front of him, and it's an incredible thing to watch, as Foster struggles to hold it together long enough to do some damage to the enemy.
There's a secondary story involving an Afghan village near the fighting that is committed to resisting the Taliban, even if it means death for some of its people, and late in the film the fight between the Americans and the Talibans lands on its doorstep (literally). I'm sure some, or even all, of this part of the story is true, but that feels like the only part I might question the details about. A film based on a true story is not necessarily weakened when it strays from the truth, but when it feels false, it suffers. And those sections of LONE SURVIVOR feel overly sentimental and betray the authenticity of the rest of the film. It's a minor flaw, but it's a flaw nevertheless.
To say that LONE SURVIVOR is jingoistic is like saying the color red is red. Of course it is, and you know that full well going in. That being said, Berg's choice to open the film with what is practically a commercial for the military goes beyond unnecessary and feels like shameless propaganda. But once the story gets rolling, all such frivolities leave the room, and what we're left with is a story of four men who lock into each other with a single mind and purpose. Their survival instincts are impressive and the eye for detail in the story is impossible to deny, but the odds were against them almost from the beginning.
No matter how many films I see in a year, you never quite get used to the ones where you know most of the characters you're watching are going to die. So the real drama comes from finding how just how the hell one man survived this onslaught, and Berg maps out his route and gives us perfect pacing throughout. I wish there had been a bit more character development in the script so we could get to know and care about the men who gave their lives in this mission (a total of 19 died; I won't tell you how the other 16 died), and Berg's lays it on pretty thick when it comes to establishing his Taliban bad guys—the only thing missing are eye patches. But the script is practically obsessed with keeping things lean, mean, gritty, painful and efficient, much like the men in the story.
No one in the film offers up any opinions on this particular battle, or the war in general, and while that may be believable, I think it's important that we understand the cost and value of these lives and not just what a guy looks like getting shot to pieces. Berg picked this incident for a reason; I wish he'd given us a sense why it meant so much to him, because in doing so, he gives it a value to the audience and the film becomes less horror show and more a portrait of bravery. I'm still recommending LONE SURVIVOR, but more because of its stunning technical achievements and acting, and less because of its bigger-picture implications. And let's be honest, if you make a film about a current war, somewhere in there is a statement about that war.