Lone Survivor (15)
Dir: Peter Berg
With: Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch
Runtime: 121 minutes
IN Peter Berg's sinewy war drama, the elite US Navy Seals in Afghanistan are bristling with high-tech kit. They appear to want for nothing: not laptops, not satellite phones, not monitoring eyes in the sky flying overhead. But from the start we sense that sooner or later the business of engaging the enemy will be a more brutal, low tech matter, and so it proves. In the era of the drone strike, Lone Survivor is a reminder that war is not just a hellish business but usually an up close and personal one besides.
That it should be Berg at the helm of a war picture is not such a surprise. The Friday Night Lights director also directed the flag-waving The Kingdom (2007) and Battleship (2012). In the latter, an international force, led by the US Navy, wages war against alien intruders at sea. But while Battleship was heroically daft and spectacularly rambling, Lone Survivor is taut and engaging. And while it has its jingoistic moments, anyone who has seen Battleship will know that there might have been a lot more.
What Berg largely delivers is an old-fashioned war drama-cum-western with a capable cast and plenty of action and tension besides. Compared to the cartoonish portrait of war in Battleship, this is a masters-level essay about one particular real-life mission that went spectacularly awry.
The picture opens with footage of Seals in training. They are being taught how to go through the pain barrier, to endure the seemingly unendurable, to be model warriors.
Once the drama gets going the first scenes, of a horribly injured soldier in a helicopter, show that no amount of training can eliminate the risks posed in reality. From that point, Berg pulls back to several days earlier to explain what happened and how.
The set up is admirably restrained, and the more powerful for it. Indeed, it is at least 40 minutes into the film before we hear the first sounds of shots being fired. Yet Berg's pacing and structuring of the story ensure that the audience is engaged from the off.
Before the mission the Seals are seen exercising, sleeping, messaging girlfriends back home, making the most of their down time. The main leisure activity appears to be growing beards. The rest period is brought to an end with an announcement by the commanding officer (Eric Bana) that there is a mission on the table to capture and kill a Taliban commander - a "bad guy" - and others. Before that can get under way, a new member of the team has to be initiated, with part of the ceremony including the recitation of a speech with the line "moderation is for cowards". So far, so by the numbers.
The unit dispatches into the mountains, staking out their positions above the enemy's camp. It looks like a near textbook set up, but there are problems with the radio and the unit of four soldiers (played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster) looks for another position. Once there, it soon becomes clear that the problem with the radio is the least of their worries. When one of the band of brothers starts to wonder if the mission is cursed, Wahlberg's character reassures him, Chinatown-style, that "there are no cursed ops. It's just Afghanistan, that's all".
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have generated their fair share of films, the best among them being the documentary Restrepo, directed by Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington, and Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker. Lone Survivor, being about a single incident, does not have the sweep or political savvy of these earlier films, but what it lacks in breadth and depth it makes up for in sheer, take the breath away, action.
Adapted from the book by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson, Lone Survivor plays out like a modern version of the Alamo, with the few ranged against the many. The special effects call to mind Saving Private Ryan, with the noise of the battle particularly nerve-jangling.
It is no surprise that the film has been nominated for two Oscars in sound categories.
Otherwise, Lone Survivor grabs the attention and holds it courtesy of Berg's confident way with a story and his actors' ability to flesh out rounded characters using not much in the way of screen time. It is during the action scenes that some of the most flag-waving dialogue occurs, but given what is going on around them, we hardly suspect the soldiers to speak like UN peace negotiators. Leading the action from first to last is Wahlberg, also a producer on the movie, as Luttrell. In a strong cast, his is the performance that proves the most engaging.
Despite all the noise and chaos, the film is not without its quieter moments and nuances. Even when the fog of war clears, the story is done, and the credits are rolling, the surprises keep on coming.