Lone Survivor, the new film by writer-director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Hancock, Battleship), based off the non-fiction book by ex-Navy SEAL, Marcus Luttrell, could have gone the other way.
Instead of telling a tense, human story about brothers in more ways than just blood, set in the backdrop of a terrible historical battle in Afghanistan, Berg and star Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights, The Departed) could have relied on patriotism, jingoism and the beat of the Star Spangled Banner, and played this thing completely different.
Lone Survivor follows the members of SEAL Team 10, tasked with the job of reconnoitering an Afghan village in the mountains in hopes of locating and capturing a senior Taliban leader. Walberg plays Marcus Luttrell, the titular member of the four-man insertion squad that was to lead off the mission called Operation: Red Wings. Taylor Kitsch (Battleship, John Carter) plays Mike Murphy, the mission lead; Ben Foster (The Punisher (2004), X3, Kill Your Darlings) plays Matt “Axe” Axelson; and Emile Hirsch (Girl Next Door, Speed Racer) plays Danny Dietz.
While Wahlberg will get the credit as the lead, the other three actors playing his squad mates actually outshine him by a far margin. This is Taylor Kitsch’s best performance in a film, and Ben Foster puts on a clinic on how to act as a soldier, especially once the action begins. His take on Axe is completely believable and his death is one of the most gut wrenching I’ve seen on film in decades. The script by Berg shies away from the usual macho military tropes, and instead opts to show these men as real people. They discuss horses, vacations, real world debt, and how hard it is to get out of bed in the morning. It is refreshing to see this level of realism in a war movie.
The film opens with real footage of SEALs going through training, almost as if Berg is trying to show us how these guys can take so much hell and not just roll over. Then we meet each man, with implied snippets of their civilian lives. It’s not easy to create backstory with limited exposition, but Berg does an adequate job. I would have liked to know more about these guys, but the time constraints of a film just don’t allow it.
About an hour in, during the mission, a family of Afghani goat herders stumbles into the middle of the mission and things start to go awry. What follows is a tense moral discussion between the soldiers–the brothers, really–and a decision is made that proves to be destructive.
Lone Survivor could have wrapped itself around this plot point–the moral dilemma–and would have been an interesting film. But Berg and company have more of Luttrell’s story to tell, and what follows in half an hour is one of the most intense, best-filmed wartime gunfights in history. The pacing and blocking is outstanding, and the Foley work during the gunfight is incredible in almost every way. There are various calibers of gunshots, explosions, the destroyed flora; the wet sounds of bullet wounds, and of course, the sucking sound of a punctured lung. It is amazing to watch–and hear.
Lone Survivor does tend to unravel in the third act, as the story begins to wind down. I’m completely aware that this is based on true events, but in the context of the film, the actions of the people in the third act don’t make a lot of sense, and only after a title card before the end credits explains the “why” does it make any sense.
Part of the reason for this confusion is in how Berg chooses to introduce his main baddie, Ahmad Shah. Without getting too much into it, the two sides of this village don’t coalesce, as they should. I think the film needed another half an hour on its run time to explore this a bit better. It would have pushed the film to almost two-and-a-half hours, but it would have also made the production better overall. That could be the difference between a patriotic, intense crowd pleaser and an Oscar-winning patriotic, intense crowd pleaser.
Lone Survivor is one of those films that moviegoers won’t soon forget. It’s a tale of brotherhood and survival, and there is no better example of how good the U.S. Navy SEALs are at what they do. Make no mistake; this is not Michael Biehn and Charlie Sheen; this is NOT your father’s Navy SEALs movie. This is intense and brutal, and I came out of the film with even more appreciation for the men and women who choose–they CHOOSE–to do this for me, for us. And sometimes, it goes bad, like it did here.
It’s easy for Hollywood to generate patriotism and valor, with good actors working in safe locations. What isn’t easy is capturing more than just that chest-thumping patriotic feeling all the while telling a brutal and sometimes sad story based off true events, with an outcome that keeps the audience hanging until the very last shot. Here, Peter Berg and his production have pulled it off.
Lone Survivor won’t soon be forgotten, and that in itself is the best honor to give the men who gave their lives for this story to be told in the first place. I know I will never forget them.