Director Peter Berg sure does fancy his modern day war themed films. And why wouldn’t he? Barring Battleship, he has a knack for these heart-felt but hard-hitting and gritty stories. His true talent seems to be in these dense fish-out-of-water narratives focusing on a few key players set in a world they struggle to comprehend. With many parallels to his 2007 film The Kingdom, Lone Survivor, whether or not it was a true story (which it is), is a passion project for Berg and can almost be viewed as a companion piece.
Lone Survivor, adapted from a novel of the same name (keeping the name of the book is a little spoilery), is an extremely gritty and highly bombastic film. It tells the unbelievable tale of 4 Navy SEALs who were sent into Afghanistan to take down a Taliban leader. What transpired over the course of 3 days is an amazing testament to the human spirit but more it’s about the brotherhood that exists between the most elitist of U.S. Armed Forces. Early on we get some down time with stars Taylor Kitsch, Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster to see them interact with each other and, via email and web chat, their families. That’s all well and good, but it’s their unflinching efforts to keep each other safe in the most furious of firefights that really sells their conviction.
Nothing is routine about what these guys do. When their cover is compromised, and the Taliban is made aware of their position, the SEALs’ main objective is to simply survive the 200 odd soldiers headed their way. Like the best thrillers, things continually go bad for the SEALs, who are relentlessly hunted in the mountains of Afghanistan. While a lot of movies make you feel like you’re there, Berg quite literally puts you front and center with these four heroes. Either you’re pressed firmly to the butt of a rifle, or you’re on the dangerous end of it. You really get that close and we are meant to feel every bump, bruise and bullet wound inflicted on the servicemen…every single one.
Kitch is surprisingly great, Foster never doesn’t give a role his all and Wahlberg surprisingly steps up his game but the films is more than the sum of their efforts. It’s the cinematography that drives the story but beyond that the unsung heroes of Lone Survivor are its team of stuntmen and the wonderful makeup/special effects (from industry legend Greg Nicotero, no less) that bring it all home. Nicotero’s makeup shows the progression of wounds (getting swollen, turning colors) as opposed someone getting a black eye that stays the same.
In a way, knowing this is Nicotero’s work, you have to expect that when someone dies, the makeup is so gorily good that you half expect them to come back as a zombie (little Walking Dead humor, folks). Similarly, when these guys come tumbling down the mountain, they hit rocks, and lots of them. Between whizzing bullets and bones on boulders, it seems the sound design team did most of the heavy lifting. Not surprising though, because if you look back to Peter Berg’s 2003 film The Rundown, he knows how to make the audience feel what the actors feel.
Berg tries not to paint the SEALs as superheroes but it’s kind of hard not to knowing what they suffered. Though half of it is combat-free, Berg’s film is simultaneously the swiftest and yet longest endurance run as we are on the front line with these for servicemen, and half of it is before the action and top-notch gun play even start. Wise movie is that he asks composer Steve Jablosnky and band Explosions in the Sky (who seem to do more in the music dept) to reign in anything that sounds really triumphant.
In fact the music is almost as non-existent as the help that the SEALs get running through the Afghani countryside. Make no mistake, Lone Survivor is a fine film and is Peter Berg’s best to date. Again the fact that it’s true makes it that much more impressive. Though you may never have heard the names Marcus Luttrell, Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz or Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson, you’ll fear for them, (emotionally and physically) when bullets start spraying and the SEALs are, quite literally, rolling down the mountains.
If the film suffers in any way, it’s that you feel for the SEALs but they’re still not memorable. In that respect the story feels a bit rushed and hollow. But part of this is because there isn’t sufficient time to make the SEALs endearing. Admirable yes, and worthy of praise, but not endearing. It’s an impressive presentation, and while it fails to make a deeper connection than the surface level psychological/personal chaos, it is really a film about four guys running for their lives. You ever ask a sprinter, or better someone in car crash what they saw for the duration of their adrenaline-fueled experience? It’s tunnel vision all the way to the end even for these guys who are highly trained soldiers. That’s what the movie delivers, and if there’s not a lot of details (besides the life-threatening white spots) remembered at the end, that may very well be point.