“Lone Survivor” is not only one of the more realistic movie accounts of modern warfare, it is also a searing portrait of men lost in the fog of war, under fire from every direction with little hope of immediate rescue.
The movie is the most sustained and serious work yet from Peter Berg, whose last film, “Battleship,” was a laughable Hollywood action picture that failed to celebrate the same military virtues “Sole Survivor” does indeed honor.
Hard to take yet impossible not to watch, “Lone Survivor” thrusts you into combat at its rawest, most elemental level, using an unapologetic rough-and-tough style to slip past script and character deficiencies, which are considerable.
While the film concerns a June 2005 military mission that eventually claimed the lives of 19 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, clearly the filmmakers intend no inquiry into this country’s recent military adventures in the Middle East nor contextual analysis of the cultural, political or military forces at play in that region.
This is strictly hung-ho portrayal of special forces in action whose patriotism John Ford would easily recognize. The film never even bothers to explain why none of these elite special forces soldiers speaks even a few words of the local language, a deficiency that may have sealed their fate.
The movie derives from an eyewitness narrative by now-retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell (written with Patrick Robinson), which Berg’s screenplay uses to honor men who sacrifice their lives for kin and country without any sentimentality.
The impact of this effort is considerable, which is not to say we don’t need more nuanced and inquisitive films about Afghanistan such as “Restrepo,” Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s 2010 documentary about Army troops in that country, or “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s study in moral ambiguity in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Deployed to Afghanistan in 2005, four Navy SEALs are dropped by helicopter into inhospitable mountain terrain from which the men can watch a village and possibly neutralize a Taliban baddie (Yousuf Azami). One of my major criticisms here is that while the mission is barked at them — and the viewer — in quick military jargon, many viewers will be in the dark about its details and ultimate goals.
Among these elite soldiers are Hospital Corpsman Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) a 29-year-old Texas native, and his buddies Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Gunner’s Mate Danny P. Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Sonar Technician Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster).
Radio communication is fine the first day but drops out mysteriously during the night. This proves to be the crucial flaw, one that should have aborted the mission. But before this can even get decided, a trio of goatherds stumbles onto their hideout, possibly a father and two sons.
They are unarmed civilians, and therefore should be released in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. But their hostility is readily apparent.
The smart thing to do is simply kill them but the Convention wins out — not because of any heightened sense of morality on the SEALs’ part but in fear of how the enemy will turn these murders into propaganda and what “CNN will do with this.”
There is tense debate over this in one of the film’s least dynamic and awkwardly filmed scenes but the goatherds get released. The angered sons can’t get run the mountainside fast enough to inform the Taliban.
The SEALs’ retreat proves impassable and soon they are surrounded. A barrage of fire and rockets rains down on the men from below and above. The destruction to their bodies is made amply clear through prosthetics and fake blood flow, aggravated by horrific falls down rocky slopes when thrown by rocket-propelled grenades.
Every bone crack and flesh gouge against jagged rocks and sturdy branches register in the sound track (by mixer David Brownlow). The warriors’ mangled bodies with bullet holes here and there after each further tumble are testament to the effectiveness of the makeup work and Berg’s overall battle plan for capturing the ghastly action.
Of course, the cynic might recognize that in this gruesome set-piece Berg is trying to place himself in the modern-day pantheon of war-film directors, to invite comparisons to “Black Hawk Down” — the film closest in spirit to “Sole Survivor” — as well as “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Thin Red Line” and “We Were Soldiers.”
To give him due credit, he does so.
Luttrell and his men return fire, collecting more dead Taliban than in a video game. Yet the numbers are against them.
Against them as well is the ruggedness of the terrain. (New Mexico stands in for Afghanistan). Colby Parker Jr.’s nervous editing and Tobias Schliesser’s limited-vantage compositions keep you pinned down with the men although the occasional camera angle reveals enemy movements the protagonists would not have seen.
The film deliberately refrains from taking any stand about either Afghanistan or modern warfare in general. Yet no one can watch this carnage without wondering if any of this was truly worth the price.
And the question of morality in war gets an answer in later story developments where another act of conscience actually saves Luttrell. This comes from a village leader (Ali Suliman) whose bravery offsets what might otherwise seem like a jingoistic war movie.
In a small role back at HQ, Eric Bana efficiently plays Lt. Cmdr. Erik S. Kristensen, who must sweat out the rescue of the sole surviving member of his detail.
Clearly the film benefits from Berg’s collaborators especially those brought over from “Battleship,” which includes composer Steve Jablonsky.
Opens: December 27, 2013; opens wide January 10, 2014 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Emmett/Furla Films, Films 44
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig, Yousuf Azami, Sammy Sheik
Director/screenwriter: Peter Berg
Based on the book “Lone Survivor: An Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10” by: Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson
Producers: Peter Berg, Sarah Aubrey, Randall Emmett, Norman Herrick, Barry Spikings, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Vitaly Grigoriants
Executive producers: George Furla, Simon Fawcett, Braden Aftergood, Louis G. Friedman, Remington Chase, Stepan Martirosyn, Adi Shankar, Spencer Silna, Mark Damon, Brandt Andersen, Jeff Rice
Director of photography: Tobias A. Schliessler
Production designer: Tom Duffield
Music: Steve Jablonsky
Editor: Colby Parker Jr.
R rating, 121 minutes