4 / 5 stars
When your film is called Lone Survivor, and power-star Mark Wahlberg is your lead actor, it doesn’t take your audience long to figure out who ends up inhabiting the title role. But that lack of Hollywood spoiler suppression doesn’t prevent writer-director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) from giving us a hell of a harrowing journey getting there. Berg’s adaptation of the book by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell is the screen ideal of a steely-eyed military maneuver: well-mapped out but terrifying, with unrelenting focus and attitude.
Berg’s screenplay, nominated for a Writers Guild of America award as the Best Screenplay of 2013, starts off in all-too-familiar territory, introducing a few boys in the barracks via their online messages to loved ones, physical challenges and rookie hazing. But we soon see Berg’s reason for relying on standard crap like this – we have to recognize these guys and their roles just enough before Lone Survivor becomes a step-by-step mission diary.
The real-life mission that’s recreated is now infamous. A small group of soldiers trek across a mountain range in Afghanistan — with few supplies and poor radio communications — with orders to kill a high-ranking Taliban member. The team (strong performances across the board from Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Berg favorite Taylor Kitsch) moves with swift purpose until they unexpectedly encounter a few townspeople crossing into the high forest. After the Americans decide to let the locals go (preceded by a tense, finely edited ethical debate), Berg reveals an exquisite visual: An Afghan boy racing back down the mountain to the village by leaping from huge boulder to huge boulder, bounding with almost supernatural adeptness and speed, clearly the master of his own terrain. And we just know our soldiers are in trouble.
It’s a fantastic transition to a series of powerhouse sequences in which the Navy SEALS are cornered and attacked, pushing themselves — and their gradually beaten-down bodies — to another mountainous location, only to be cornered and attacked again. The portrayal of the boys’ physical punishment is unflinching, as they become increasingly broken and bloodied, conveying what these soldiers must have endured in being hunted down. But it also illustrates their indefinable mental toughness, an obvious attribute of any Navy SEAL as we learn early via real-life training footage during the movie’s searing opening credits.
In his endeavor to treat his subjects with the respect they deserve, Berg will sometimes teeter toward Hollywood heroics; which, in many films like this, can serve an opposite purpose by shining a completely unrealistic light on what really happened. But he pulls back and generally avoids the bravado of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (and, lord help us, Michael Bay’s wretched Pearl Harbor), pressing on instead with the gory details, pausing just once to elevate one soldier’s sacrifice onto a cinematic pedestal.
It’s a tough balance for a typically conventional movie director whose instincts may be to play it big (Battleship), even when a sequence may be better treated by unconventional methods. But Berg stays consistent in his approach and succeeds in making Lone Survivor the brutal, blood-and-guts movie its intended larger audience will respond to. His flag-waving finale pays homage to the men in ways that are both appropriately deferential but too easily manipulative. Considering the relative achievements of the rest of the film, and the men it portrays, it’s a forgivable weakness.