The last time director Peter Berg attempted a contemporary war picture, the result was 2007’s The Kingdom, an average-at-best action film kneecapped by its overt patriotism and wobbly execution. Added to this, the rest of Berg’s résumé fails to inspire much confidence, with titles ranging from serviceable (The Rundown) to interminable (Battleship,Hancock). How pleasantly surprising and refreshing, then, to witness 2013’s Lone Survivor, which is arguably Berg’s best movie. Based on a tragic true-life story, this is a powerful, harrowing war movie, permeated with enough gravitas and emotion to emerge as one of the year’s most impressive motion picture achievements. It’s very much the cousin of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, as it depicts a disastrous military operation with a violent, boots-on-the-ground sensibility.
In mid-2005, a military operation known as Red Wings went into effect. The objective was to find and apprehend Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), who was responsible for a number of military casualties in the Middle East. As part of the operation, a four-man team of Navy SEALs – including Marcus (Marl Wahlberg), Michael (Taylor Kitsch), Danny (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew (Ben Foster) – are sent to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. Bonding while dealing with their respective personal issues, the men are thrown a curveball when a few locals stumble into view just as their communications equipment cuts out. Without a line to home base, the men decide to cut the locals loose as they retreat to higher ground in a bid to restore communications. Before long, Taliban forces swarm the area, leaving the four men stranded as they battle hundreds of armed soldiers while attempting to get a clear line to their commanding officer back at base (Eric Bana).
Reportedly, Universal were unwilling to finance Lone Survivor unless Berg directed Battleship for the studio, which perhaps explains why that blockbuster was so slipshod. In a satisfyingly ironic twist, Battleship was a money-losing flop for the studio, whereas Lone Survivor has developed into quite a sleeper hit. Berg, who also wrote the film, really threw himself into the project, conducting extensive research and even embedding himself in a Navy SEAL team to experience service life firsthand. To heighten authenticity, the opening credits unfold over authentic video footage of SEAL training, and Berg employs an R-rating to soak the dialogue in f-words and military jargon. To be sure, there isn’t an enormous amount of character depth here, but Berg spends enough time developing the protagonists during the film’s first act, which gives them all a distinct identity and presence. Moreover, we see these tough guys depicted as human beings with loved ones back at home, and we feel that they’re fighting for something meaningful.
Although the title of Lone Survivor is a spoiler, Berg ruins all sense of surprise for the uninitiated by including an idiotic flash-forward in the very first scene. It’s a dumb move, but, miraculously, it doesn’t diminish the tension or horror of the movie’s action scenes. Lone Survivor is one of the most visceral war movies in history, right up there with Saving Private Ryan due to the realism of the carnage on display. Berg establishes a lived-in feel, giving us the experience of what it would be like on the battlefield surrounded by Taliban forces. The shootouts here are viscerally exciting, to be sure, but they’re also downright horrifying, as these highly-trained soldiers look to be in utter agony as they get hit by bullets on a consistent basis, but are forced to suck it up if they want any chance of escaping. Added to this, they tumble down unforgiving rocky terrain which leads to gashes and bruises, making their chances of survival look bleaker by the minute. The intensity that Berg brings to the material is undeniable, and this reviewer winced several times. The stunt guys went through hell to bring this gripping story to the screen, and the results are something to be proud of. Furthermore, Berg resists the urge to employ shaky-cam; his direction is steady and clear, and the results are fucking beautiful.
The picture takes a fascinating turn into its third act, finding the titular lone survivor being picked up by Afghani villagers who vow to protect him due to their religious beliefs. It gives dimension to the Afghani people, showing that not everyone in the country is a Taliban soldier. Added to this, it emphasises the great courage of Taliban-resisting villagers in Afghanistan, who are given a special mention in the end credits. However, Berg unfortunately turns to unnecessary popcorn-munching clichés for the climax, staging a battle scene that never happened in real-life and feels too Hollywood. It may be entertaining, but it comes off as hoary and forced, especially when the Americans show up to save the day. A gentler conclusion would have worked far better.
It’s to the credit of the performers that, despite heavy costuming, each of them were able to create a distinct on-screen persona which allows us to distinguish them from one another. The acting is top-flight right down the line, with the four leads delivering believable, compelling performances. Receiving top billing is Wahlberg, though he doesn’t receive any special focus once the fire-fight breaks out. These guys are in the same life-threatening situation, and Wahlberg, Foster, Hirsch and Kitsch are emotionally rattling as they’re forced to confront their own mortality. Kitsch is perhaps the biggest surprise – his woefully flat performances in John Carter, Battleship and Savages instilled very little hope for the thespian, but he’s an unexpected standout here. Also in the cast is the always-reliable Eric Bana, who’s sensational.
One of the most touching aspects of Lone Survivor is the postscript which closes the picture. Images of the real people from this tale are shown, including intimate photographs and videos, and brisk captions cap off the experience beautifully. If you are able to hold back a tear, then you are a stronger man than this reviewer. Berg has clear admiration for men in uniform, and this film is a testament to their courage, toughness and, more importantly, humanity. It doesn’t quite join the ranks of Saving Private Ryan, but it’s an exciting R-rated manly movie which pulls no punches in its depiction of modern warfare.