Starring Taylor Kitsch, Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster and Eric Bana.
How does a director go from Battleship, one of the most reviled military thrillers of recent memory, to Lone Survivor, a very personal movie about real American soldiers who fought and died in Afghanistan?
For Peter Berg, the director of both, the answer is this: very carefully.
If you're familiar with Berg and his directing style — picture manic swearing screamed from a belligerent child strapped to the front of a battering ram — then you'll know why his reverent handling of Marcus Luttrell's 2007 book comes as a surprise to me. Berg was cast in the shadow of more technical directors (James Cameron), more endearing ones (Ron Howard) and more bombastic ones (Michael Bay), and aside from the poignant FridayNight Lights, his catalog is filled with dud (The Rundown) after dud (Hancock) after dud (The Kingdom). Somehow, though, the actor-director pulls this one together with the kind of skill and wizardry of some of Hollywood's best.
Lone Survivor strikes the right note right out the gate. It opens on documentary footage of Navy SEALs going through their BUD/S training. If you'll recall Ridley Scott's G.I. Jane, BUD/S, or Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, is the hellacious training that Demi Moore's character suffers through to prove herself. In this footage, though, we're not seeing actors, but real faces. They beam with potential. These faces will return; more on that later.
The film picks up with Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) assembling his SEAL team — Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) — to get choppered into a valley deep in Afghanistan to pour some mayhem down on a terrorist target. These are some bad dudes, with their beards and their swagger. To quote Zero Dark Thirty: "… you guys with your dip and Velcro and all your gear bullshit." A fantastic early sequence has one of the "rootin' tootin' shootin' paratroopin'" newbies reciting a SEAL poem that is as charming as it is vulgar.
Musically held together not by pop music or blaring rock 'n' roll, Lone Survivor is scored in part by post-rock instrumentalist outfit Explosions in the Sky, and the band's floaty free-form guitar concepts hypnotize the early sequences into a cerebral meditation on service and the cohesion that exists with these elite warriors. By the time the four SEALs are initiating the beginning phases of Operation Red Wing, we're pretty much ready for that "everything is going to be OK" illusion to be shattered. And it certainly does when the soldiers are faced with a moral dilemma that they pass with flying colors, even if it means their lives are forfeit.
What happens next is the least interesting part of the movie, but one that will likely thrill most action junkies: the four SEALs are boxed into a guns-blazing battle with dozens of enemy fighters. The gunplay is intense and violent, much of it to due to the action's stark presentation and the realistic weaponry. Guns have powerful calls, and bullets have devastating responses. (But the RPGs seem to have no negative repercussions, even as they burst next to exposed faces.) With superior training and firepower, the four soldiers push the enemy back with extreme precision. And even as bullets skid past (and through) them, they shake it off and hold their corners. Remember when Jesse Ventura said he "ain't got time to bleed" in Predator? That was a paper cut compared to these wounds, including one that is gaping so wide that medical treatment involves packing it with soil. At one point, the SEALs are backed up against a cliff, and they make a choice that requires a level of commitment that is beyond comprehension — they jump off. Their bodies ragdoll down the rock face, tumbling over boulders and through trees. The sequence is so effective you're better off watching it from behind your fingers.
The four cast members are often hidden behind their beards and rifle scopes, but they depict their subjects with honor and valor, neither deifying their bravery or downplaying their heroism. They're played like average guys, guys you'd want to get a drink with and watch a football game with. They were doing their jobs partly for their country, but mostly for each other; Uncle Sam is an idea, but Marcus, Mike, Danny and Axe are real people. I only hope that audiences recognize these guys as brothers before action heroes.
That being said, Lone Survivor is a competent and agile movie that does justice to its four central heroes. And best of all, Berg ends the movie the way he started it — with the faces of the real SEALs. It's the most important part of the picture, and I'm glad Berg lets the images linger on the screen. We need to see those faces, and remember them.