Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” is an interesting war film in that it celebrates America’s elite warriors while also demythologizing them. As much as some critics have questioned the film’s often jingoistic tone, they also often neglect to recognize that with its celebration of its heroes comes a depiction of their frailties. After Berg takes the time to establish the enormous strain one undergoes just to become a Navy SEAL, he then proceeds to tell a story that positions them as very much human, men forced to make no-win decisions who can be cut to pieces by bullets like anyone else.
“Lone Survivor” depicts Operation Red Wings, a 2005 mission to kill a Taliban leader. The plan saw a four man team, consisting of SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), and Danny Dietz (Emilie Hirsch), venture deep into enemy territory in order to perform reconnaissance for the mission, which, like the plan in Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down,” seems overly complicated and subject to failure with even the slightest hitch.
The film’s first third, which focuses on introducing the squad and setting up the mission, is merely passable, with an opening shot of Luttrell’s rescue proving utterly unnecessary considering what comes later. But Berg’s heart is in the action, and from the moment the mission begins with a nighttime insertion into the Afghan mountains, the film sustains a high level of excitement and tension, the latter quality being especially admirable considering that we know the basic outcome.
The SEALs quickly spot their target from afar, but are put in a bind when they themselves are seen by three Afghan civilians. A brief ethical discussion occurs: do they kill these goat herders and proceed with the mission, or do they let them go, where they will certainly alert the hundreds of Taliban fighters in the village below? Except it’s not much of a discussion, as squad leader Lt. Murphy opts for the more humane, risky approach, one whose downside is quickly realized when the squad is beset upon by scores of Taliban.
It’s here that Berg, an experienced action director, proves a fine stager of serious combat. Shot and edited in a way that makes the Afghan terrain seem halfway claustrophobic as the Taliban box the SEALs in with numbers and superior firepower, the battle scenes are examples of how to render war as a loud, frantic, awful experience. Even in the post-“Saving Private Ryan” era, the squad’s mounting injuries and worsening situation feel gruesome; a rescue attempt has unfortunate results that exponentially multiply the tragedy of the action. The effectiveness of these scenes is occasionally tempered by Berg’s use of slow motion, which unnecessarily attempts to lionize the characters even though their actions speak for themselves.
Little spoken of in reviews and publicity materials is the final act, which sees Luttrell sheltered by sympathetic Afghans, who, with their merciful deeds, serve as an analogue to the Americans. These moments are not only among the film’s most suspenseful, but key to its success. War films often feature enemy soldiers or civilians as characters, but few have utilized them as “Lone Survivor” does, as real people making hard choices, not as a mere backdrop for the adventures of the protagonist. Through the Afghan villagers, the film becomes somewhat more than just the story of SEALs and Taliban, but the conflicts that characterize war itself.
Berg, who also wrote the script, makes the smart decision to have Wahlberg, his star as the eponymous title character, not receive primary focus until, non-spoiler alert, his fellow SEALs have all fallen. For most of its run-time, “Lone Survivor” plays like an ensemble piece, with good work from all concerned, including Kitsch, who gives his best screen performance to date as the reliable, semi-legendary Murphy, and Eric Bana as the SEAL commander and point-man on the rescue mission. Wahlberg himself does well, with none of the macho grimacing that often characterizes his tough-guy performances, instead making Luttrell a skilled fighter eventually overcome by fright as his situation collapses.
By emphasizing the dangers of war and the ways that even the best troops can be slaughtered in a debacle, “Lone Survivor” aims to be the “Black Hawk Down” of this decade. It’s not as good as that film, but it’s an honorable look at America’s armed forces elevated by strong filmmaking and a willingness to go beyond its excellent firefights. It closes with photographs of the 20 men killed and wounded in the engagement, a tribute that might feel like pandering if Berg hadn’t been able to convince us that his affection for these men is sincere.