Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Yousuf Azami, Ali Suliman, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig, Dan Bilzerian, Jerry Ferrara, Rick Vargas, Scott Elrod | Written and Directed by Peter Berg
Director Peter Berg is not shy about letting the intentions of his latest film Lone Survivor be known. From the opening shots of real life Navy Seals undergoing intense physical and psychological training it is apparent Berg is using this to showcase the bravery of the men and women who volunteer to protect their country. Lone Survivor depicts the real life story of the botched ‘Operation Red Wings’ where four Navy Seals attempted to capture and kill a high ranking member of the Taliban.
This is certainly a story that needs to be told, and Berg does the story justice by crafting some of the most intense battle sequences since Black Hawk Down. You will feel the sharp sting of the hurtling bullets, the crunch of the snapping bones, and the brutal agony these soldiers went through.
Berg ‘s gesture is unquestionably a noble one, however his unyielding dedication to his cause also blurs his perspective. While Lone Survivor has the action to rival Black Hawk Down, there is no attempt to add a perspective beyond a superficial level. We know these men are elite soldiers. We know these men are brave. We know these men are heroes. We do not know who these men are beyond that.
Casting a movie star the likes of Mark Wahlberg does come off as an odd choice for a film so intent on authenticity. Wahlberg plays Marcus Luttrell who was also the author of the novel the book adapts. Performance wise he is a bit uneven. He loses some of that Hollywood charm so you can buy him in this role. When the part calls for some heavy lifting near the end it does not go as well. Wahlberg has never been an actor who could properly convey extreme emotion without feeling cartoonish. He is more apt for playing that even keel presence.
Joining this cast is also Peter Berg alum Taylor Kitsch. After Kitsch was much-maligned for the failures of Battleship and John Carter it is refreshing to see him in this type of role as it is a more proper fit for his talents. Joining him is Ben Foster playing the oddball like only he can and Emile Hirsch. All these actors did enough to fill their roles, but there wasn’t any performance that really stood out. Most were not given a great deal to work with.
Berg does not go very deep with these characters. He shows small tidbits like a desire to enter the horse industry and a hope to pick out future home furnishings that humanizes these characters. You also see where the reverence these men share comes from, although it shies away from looking at anything deeper than straightforward comradery.
What the film does show is how easily a well-planned mission can go awry. Operation Red Wing started off well enough, but it shortly ran into communication issues due to the nearby mountains. Shortly thereafter a run-in with a group of goat herders places them in a no-win situation. They can either execute the unarmed prisoners or let them go, which would allow them to warn the nearby Taliban. With no chance of backup they chose to let them go and quickly find themselves in one hell of a gunfight.
That gunfight was where the film shined the most. The final half of the film becomes one elongated set piece as the situation continues to worsen for these soldiers. Relentlessly they were put through absolute hell. Death was almost a welcome comfort compared to the situation they were facing. Watching these men literally tumble down the sides of mountains as they tried to escape enemy gun fire was painful to endure. The sound design, editing, and stun work meshed together to make those moments unforgettable. Right when you think you are being allowed a reprieve the action would only amp up to a higher level.
Although the action is not without its faults, as it would stop being a gritty war movie and seep into overblown action film territory. An overuse of slow motion and a tawdry score added an unneeded element of roaring cheer. That over emphasis is where movie like Lone Survivor and Act of Valor fail, and where films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker succeed. It becomes so celebratory that the validity in the actions begins to diminish.
Propaganda may be too strong of a word, but some may see it as such. Peter Berg may have forgotten, just because something really happened does not mean it will feel real. Especially in the last twenty minutes he becomes too reliant on the “Based on a True Story” caveat as he dials the melodrama too high. Luckily, the rest of the film does not suffer from the same fate as that closing segment. He is more focused on showcasing the amazing sacrifice these men made.
In all honestly reviewing a movie of this nature does feel off-putting. I am just some schlub who watches movies and writes about them. Who am I to criticize a story about Navy Seals who show more bravery waking up in the morning than I have in my entire life? Well, at the end of the day this is still a movie. These are actors not Navy Seals, and even though the basis comes from a true story it is still of work of fiction. An indictment on this movie is obviously not an indictment on the reality. Peter Berg was able to craft a well-intentioned action film that will keep you riveted. He just was not able to make much more than that.