For Your Consideration ads taken out by Universal on behalf of Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor leaned heavily on a quote by Grantland and ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, calling the movie “the most extraordinary war film since Saving Private Ryan.” I like Simmons. A lot, actually. He’s an excellent, insightful columnist, and I read him often… if I’m interested in the NBA draft, or the Patriots’ off-season maneuvers. But when a studio uses a sports expert for a blurb on a movie’s poster – and one with awards aspirations – it immediately raises a caution flag.
Thankfully, there’s no cause for concern. Raw and real (right up until a brutal conclusion lifted out of a Rambo movie), Lone Survivor is a meat-and-potatoes soldier story, beautifully shot with an eye for unusual terrain by Berg and his regular cinematographer, Tobias Schliessler (Battleship, Hancock). It embraces the horrors of war, even as it celebrates the men and women who willfully choose to enter such visceral militaristic contests. And the film’s second hour, essentially one sustained firefight, is about as tense and realistic a combat sequence as we have seen since – well, maybe Mr. Simmons was on to something.
The story is based on the best-selling memoirs of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor of a failed mission who is portrayed on-screen by blue-collar Mark Wahlberg – comfortable now in character-actor gigs and heavy-handed genre action. Lone Survivor can be a bit of both. After showing our hero flat-lining in the aftermath of the central, bloody battle, Berg leaps back three days to introduce the men of SEAL Team 10. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) is engaged to a girl back home who hopes he’ll buy her a horse. Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and his significant other are building a home, and there are a lot of creative decisions that need to be made. All along, the men of Team 10 consistently haze the “new guy,” Shane Patton (Alexander Ludwig).
When the mission starts, though, Lone Survivor shelves the boys-club nonsense and becomes all business. By following Luttrell’s book to the letter, it details “Operation Red Wings,” a failed mission targeting Ahmad Shah, a Tier-One target for our military. In order to bag the Taliban leader, Luttrell and his team embark on a mission with “a lot of moving parts.”
They have no idea.
The mission takes a left turn when two kids and an old man stumble on the pack of soldiers, presenting a life-threatening quandary. Kill the unarmed prisoners, and Luttrell’s squad breaks military protocol. Let them go, however, and the soldiers know they are going to alert Taliban forces to the soldiers’ position, compromising the operation and inviting all hell to break loose. Care to guess which happens?
It’s not “if” the men die in Lone Survivor. It’s “how” they die, and Berg generates ample amounts of behind-enemy-lines tension throughout this compelling war drama, which lays its cards on the table with a revealing title but still holds us in a vice grip for two compelling hours. The rocky, isolated landscapes of Afghanistan – really New Mexico – act as an antagonistic character for the soldiers on this deadly, fact-based mission. And Berg eschews night-vision green or the hand-held chop that has characterized war pictures of the recent past. Lone Survivor proves contemporary, with his Taliban targets, but isn’t rooted in a conflict that makes it of-the-moment. It’s an authentic military exercise that can (and will) stand the test of time.
Berg’s men also have an enviable chemistry, a rapport that bonds the unit and, in turn, supports the movie. Credit Luttrell, who reportedly was a consultant on the picture and helped Berg train his actors in the irregular art of military combat. Wahlberg’s ideally cast as scruffy Luttrell, the veteran leader who acts like a big brother to the men in his squad. Ben Foster stands out as the voice of reason in an unreasonable situation. And Kitsch, God help me, is watchable. After dreadful turns in Battleship and John Carter, I never thought I’d appreciate the young actor in any feature. He may survive in this industry after all.
Lone Survivor delivers what it promises, and nothing more. It is a hard-hitting, bloody account of a failed combat mission, giving enough time to the man who survived, as well as to the men we lost. It may not contend for awards in this crowded season, but it will earn standing ovations in American multiplexes for its no-nonsense approach to heroism in impossible situations.