Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor,” among obvious things such as brotherhood and what it means to be a Navy Seal, is about how sometimes things can go really, really bad. Even for the Navy Seals who are considered to be the elite of the elite U.S military force. Based on a true story, the movie revolves around four Seals who get trapped behind enemy lines. What begins as a standard mission for them turns into an intense (and unfortunately tragic) fight for their lives. Like any great war film, “Lone Survivor” makes sure to focus on the actions of the individual soldiers involved and their struggles instead of other things like politics, and despite the movie’s overwhelming sense of pride and appreciation directed towards the Navy Seals and the American military, Berg doesn’t make any of it look fun. Not one bit.
Admittedly the movie does get off to a rough start; real footage of Navy Seal training is shown over the opening credits and then we’re given a brief intro to the four navy seals as they’re on base preparing for their mission. There’s Marcus Luttrel (Mark Wahlberg), team leader Michael Murphy, (Taylor Kitsch) Danny Dietz, (Emile Hersch) and Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson (Ben Foster). The Seal training footage, while well intentioned, undercuts the action in the rest of the movie. Essentially Berg is telling us right upfront: “hey it’s no easy task being a Navy Seal, so you should be grateful for them” when instead he should be letting their actions speak for themselves (which, he eventually does).
And as for the following section introducing the Seals at the base, it should have either been longer (to let us see more how they interact with one another when not on a mission) or Berg should have just gone straight into the mission and introduced them then. As it is, the first fifteen or so minutes of “Lone Survivor” feel slight and unnecessary.
However, once it gets to the actual mission, “Lone Survivor” becomes thrilling, nerve-wracking and most of all saddening. The four-man team gets dropped deep in mountains of Afghanistan, their mission: capture and kill a notorious Taliban leader in a nearby village. By a stroke of bad (oh, so bad!) luck their cover is compromised by a group of goat herders, and to make matters worse their radio isn’t picking up a signal. The mission is compromised but the Seals keep their cool and run through their options. After much discussion and disagreement the Seals decide to do the honorable thing and let them go.
From there, all hell breaks loose and the four Seals find themselves facing off against a massive Taliban army. The bullets begin to fly, critical flesh wounds are inflicted and bones are broken. Just when they’ve temporarily shaken the advancing Taliban soldiers, more come running out of the trees and the bullets keep whizzing past. No rest. But giving up isn’t an option and so the Seals push on, running, climbing, crawling and fighting. Berg and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler shoot these combat sequences with a blunt intensity. I found myself cringing in pain when the Seals trip and sometimes throw themselves off rocky ledges as they desperately make their way down the mountain. The viewer is left uncomfortable and disoriented and by the end you find yourself stumbling out of the theater, bleeding and bruised along with these guys.
During this section of the picture Berg (who adapted the screenplay from Luttrel’s 2007 memoir of the same name) wisely keeps the action focused and contained to these four individuals. He never cuts to the Afghani village to show the maniacal Taliban leaders plotting and scheming, or to the Seal’s loved ones back home and only occasionally does he cut to the military base to show the commanders reacting and responding to this fiasco. The movie never feels artificial and overwrought and more importantly Berg doesn’t make any of it look glorious or pleasant. But at the same time like “Zero Dark Thirty” or “The Hurt Locker,” “Lone Survivor” remains apolitical, never feeling like military propaganda but also not actively anti-war. In addition all four of the lead actors turn in convincing performances.
There’s nothing all that earth shattering and complex about “Lone Survivor,” it doesn’t rewrite the rules of the war picture, but then again the simpler these kinds of movies are the better they usually turn out to be. Berg’s movie is a straightforward, realistic and skillfully made war movie that focuses on the individual soldiers involved and their struggles. Simple, but incredibly effective. The film may get off to a rough start but once it hits its stride it never stops moving and holds you the entire time.