Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Yousuf Azami, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig
Rating: R, for strong war violence and pervasive profanity
Factual war saga depicts remarkable courage under fire
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Color me surprised: Peter Berg finally made another decent movie.
The actor-turned-writer/director scored an indisputable hit with 2004’s warm-hearted “Friday Night Lights,” a character-driven study of small-town Texas high school football; the film led to an equally well-received TV series that kept fans happy for three well-scripted seasons (with Berg supervising the entire run).
On the big screen, though, Berg’s résumé didn’t merely stall; it nose-dived into overwrought wretched excess. “The Kingdom” (2007) was marred by unpleasantly vicious racism; “Hancock” (2008) did little but embarrass star Will Smith; and the less said about 2012’s laughably atrocious “Battleship,” the better.
That’s a rather sad and pathetic downward spiral.
I therefore held out very little hope for “Lone Survivor,” upon learning that Berg was directing and scripting from Marcus Luttrell’s gripping 2007 memoir … which just goes to prove, once again, the folly of rash assumptions. This film deserves place of pride alongside “A Bridge Too Far,” “Gallipoli,” “Black Hawk Down” and other war dramas that honor the grit, bravery, indomitable will and almost superhuman resilience of overwhelmed, ground-based soldiers betrayed by circumstances beyond their control.
“Lone Survivor” isn’t merely stirring; it’s nail-bitingly tense and, ultimately, heartbreaking.
The story details a SEAL operation code-named Operation Red Wings, which in June 2005 sent four men into a mountainous region of Afghanistan; they were tasked with locating and killing Ahmad Shah, a Taliban sympathizer who had orchestrated the ambush of 20 Marines the previous week.
To say that everything went wrong would be an understatement. Radio communications were spotty at best, absent entirely when the subsequent crisis erupted. Worse yet, American intel seriously underestimated the size of Shah’s resident militia. When the dust had settled, as this film’s title warns us, only one man had survived … and the fatalities had expanded to include far more than the initial SEAL team.
We meet our protagonists immediately prior to their mission, during a typical “waiting” period at Camp Ouellette, at Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield. They cheerfully compete with each other, send emails to loved ones back home, make plans for the future. The day’s most significant event involves the “induction” of newbie SEAL Shane Patton (Alexander Ludwig, appropriately enthusiastic), a process that involves some mild hazing and considerable hoo-rah bonding.
The eventual team comprises Michael Patrick Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), the on-ground team officer in charge of Operation Red Wings; Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), leading petty officer and medic; Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), second-class petty officer and marksman; and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), gunner’s mate second class and communications officer.
Their late-night insertion, via fastrope, proceeds without incident; they also make excellent time hiking the treacherous territory toward their destination. But almost immediately after confirming Shah’s presence in the tiny village below, the mission is compromised by the unexpected arrival of three local goat herders.
The resulting dilemma is an immediate crisis, with tension escalating by the second, and the implications potentially grim. The subsequent discussion illuminates the divergent personalities of our heroes, with Axe and Marcus representing the two extremes. Axe, certain that their three captives are Taliban sympathizers, advocates killing them and proceeding with the mission; Marcus, the voice of reason, cautions that “rules of engagement” do not allow the execution of civilians.
The argument doesn’t last long, and — sadly — we get a sense that the decision might not have mattered either way. In the manner of things that are snakebit, celestial forces may have doomed Operations Red Wings from the outset.
Watching the resulting catastrophe unfold, during the latter two-thirds of Berg’s relentless drama, is unbearable going in … and it simply gets worse.
We grieve for what goes down because our four stars play their roles so well, and also because Berg never veers from the brotherly bond that links these men. It’s palpable and utterly persuasive; as each horrific setback is followed by an ever more desperate response, we begin to wonder — despite the evidence of history — if a miracle might occur, and the outcome somehow be different.
Berg deserves considerable credit: He gets us wholly involved, emotionally and psychologically. We couldn’t be more invested in these men.
Although Wahlberg is the nominal star, Foster quickly establishes the strongest presence as the ruthless, unstoppable Axe: the epitome of calm resolve under fire. I was reminded of the chill sniper played so memorably by Barry Pepper, in 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan”; Foster exudes the same steely, tight-lipped certainty of purpose and movement.
Wahlberg is equally comfortable in this increasingly chaotic environment: just as adept as Foster, at the story’s punishing physical qualities, and the personification of our horrified realization that things could go so wrong. More subtly, Wahlberg eventually assumes the responsibility that comes with his place in these events: We see it in his eyes. Marcus understands that living to tell the tale and properly honor his comrades becomes the mission.
From the outset, Hirsch’s Dietz feels ill-fated; if portents are to be believed, his destiny seems sealed once his radio ceases to function properly. Dietz’s reaction, however, is of surprise; it’s a feeling we share. How can these professional soldiers, equipped with so much weaponry and high-tech equipment, be even the slightest bit challenged by “simple” mountain combatants, no matter how large their number? Dietz never gets scared, merely exasperated; it’s an intriguing set of acting choices on Hirsch’s part.
Kitsch … well … is out of his league. Berg obviously likes this actor, who made his rep as one of the younger leads on the TV version of “Friday Night Lights”; Berg also made him the star of the ill-fated “Battleship.” But Kitsch brings very little to the party; he lacks the gravitas and presence necessary for a big-screen performance. He’s a bit better than an empty space here, but his handling of Murphy turns the character into a cipher.
Eric Bana exudes authority as Erik Kristensen, the commander who orchestrates Operation Red Wings and tracks its progress from Camp Ouellette. Yousuf Azami and Sammy Sheik are properly scary as Shah and his vicious second-in-command, Taraq. Ali Suliman has a welcome role as Gulab, an honorable Afghan villager, and Rohan Chand is quite memorable as Gulab’s wide-eyed young son.
The production work is top-notch, starting with Colby Parker Jr.’s superb editing and Tobias A. Schliessler’s ground-level, in-our-faces cinematography. Stunt coordinator Kevin Scott and his huge team also deserve considerable praise for delivering such bone-crunching, body-shattering verisimilitude during our heroes’ increasingly desperate attempts to escape.
Despite the obvious care with which Berg approached this material — he jokes, in the press notes, about not wanting to irritate more than 1,000 SEALs — we can sense the artistic choices that are inserted to augment the drama, particularly in the final few minutes. Even given the fidelity of Luttrell’s source material, numerous events take place that he wasn’t in a position to see, let alone report. But that’s never an issue here: If Berg’s primary goal was to honor the warrior bond that drives these men during every waking hour, he succeeded admirably.
Like “Saving Private Ryan” and the other war dramas cited above, “Lone Survivor” is hard to watch. But the outcome is worth the anguish, and this much also is certain: Berg’s film is a far better recruitment tool than early 2012’s reality-hued “Act of Valor,” with its actual active-duty SEALs.
There’s a reason drama often resonates more than real life.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com