by Steve Habrat
Way back in 2012, one of the first films that kicked off the summer movie season was director Peter Berg’s sci-fi Hasbro epic Battleship, which ended up being one of the biggest flops at the box office that summer. Whether you loved or loathed Berg’s aquatic aliens-vs.-humans blockbuster, it was clear that he is a very patriotic gentleman. A little over a year and a half later, Berg returns to the big screen with Lone Survivor, a breathtaking true war story that sheds the cartoonish Navy propaganda of Battleship and embraces a hair-raising grittiness that drops you right into the cold heart of combat. While Lone Survivor can be accused of bookending itself with the typical war movie sentiments (brotherly bonds, lump-in-the-throat jingoism), the film avoids clichéd mediocrity through the fluid chemistry between its hardened cast members, it’s pulse-pounding gunfights, and a shell-shocking brutality that leaves you sore and aching for hours after seeing it. More importantly, Berg works in a nerve-racking moral debate, which he uses to set the character’s fates into doomed motion.
Lone Survivor tells the true story of four Navy SEALs, Petty Officer Second Class Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg), Lieutenant Michael Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch), Sonar Technician Matt Axelson (played by Ben Foster), and communications officer Danny Dietz (played by Emile Hirsch), who were sent into the rocky hills of Afghanistan to gather surveillance on Ahmad Shahd, a high-ranking member of the Taliban. The SEALs set up camp just outside the village where Shahd is believed to be hiding, but their position is soon compromised after three goat herders happen to stumble upon their position. The SEALs take the goat herders prisoner, but after a lengthy debate about whether to kill them or let them go, the SEALs decide to let them go back to their village. But soon after being letting them go, the goat herders quickly report the run-in to Shahd, who orders a small army of Taliban soldiers to take to the hills and smoke out the Americans. With poor radio connection and no way out, the outnumbered SEALs are forced to engage the charging Taliban forces in a gunfight until they are able to radio the nearby American base for extraction or reinforcements.
Given the film’s title, it is no secret that only one soldier (Luttrell) makes it out alive from this confrontation. Still, Berg ups the film’s tension considerably, and he applies a bruising realism that practically blasts you from your chair. Berg begins the film with stock footage of soldiers in basic training, reconfiguring themselves to be able to endure the intensities of war and the unforgiving environments where they may fight. It’s pretty captivating stuff, and you can’t help but admire these men for doing this, but when our four protagonists are wedged into the rocky Afghani terrain and taking bullets from all angles, it’s truly difficult to imagine that the wounds suffered are met simply with loud groans and a quick grits of their teeth. Rest assured that realism wins out, especially when a heavily wounded Dietz goes into shock after taking a few bullets and having several of his fingers shot off. And then there is the violence itself, which ranges from a nauseating decapitation early on, and then culminates in compound fractures, shrapnel protruding from legs, and spraying gunshot wounds that are executed with exploding squibs and red corn syrup, which gives the violence an extra punch that isn’t shaken off easily. What truly is astonishing is that these four men were able to keep their composures, even after tumbling down rocky cliffs and clearly suffering unimaginable internal injuries that must have been excruciating.
Berg’s swipes at realism are also aided by the performances from Wahlberg, Kitsch, Foster, and Hirsch, who all seem to instantly click as a unit. Over the past several years, Wahlberg has worked hard to establish himself as a serious actor, and with Lone Survivor, he continues to earn our respect. His performance as Luttrell is one that the audience really feels as he drags himself over jagged rock and collapses in a nearby stream. Kitsch, who was the star of Berg’s Battleship, gives an authoritative performance as Mike Murphy, the group’s leader who has the final say over how to deal with their grim situation. Foster, an actor who has always remained shy of the mainstream, contributes an impressive performance as Axelson, a man who was willing to do whatever it took to keep his fellow brothers alive. Then we have Hirsch as Dietz, the boyish communications officer that slips into shock after having several of his fingers taken off by whizzing bullets. When they are all together, the group really makes the brotherly camaraderie seem natural, even if they sometimes flirt with burly clichés. Rounding out the main cast is Eric Bana as Lieutenant Commander Erik S. Kristensen, who attempted to lead the rushed rescue mission that ended tragically. Also on board is Ali Suliman as Mohammad Gulab, the kindly Afghani villager who was willing to do whatever he could to protect the horribly injured Luttrell.
While Lone Survivor is certainly gripping and unforgiving, the film isn’t completely immune to a few creeping clichés. There are the expected slow-motion acts of heroism that coax tears to the eyes of the viewer, and the brotherly bonds, while convincing, are laid on pretty thick. Clichés aside, Lone Survivor’s real problem shows up when the guns start blazing and the grenades start exploding. The action looks, sounds, and flows spectacularly, but Berg allows it to overshadow his human subjects, which results in speculation that the filmmakers may have cared more about making an action picture rather than remaining fixed on the men who fell in this fight. Still, these complaints are minor, and they are neutralized by the moral debate at the film’s turning point. Watching the SEALs deliberate the fates of the three goat herders—a group that consists of an elderly man, a teenager, and a young boy—is something that will really ignite conversation when the credits roll. Overall, stretches of Lone Survivor will feel slightly familiar to most audience members, but Berg and his cast do a fine job at paying tribute to the men who lost their lives during Operation Red Wings. It’s a tribute made with scorching realism and teary-eyed patriotism, sending you away with a renewed appreciation for those who lay down their lives for freedom.