Lone Survivor: Film Review

An intense look at 19 American deaths and one survival in a vividly re-created chapter of the fighting in Afghanistan.

Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch star in director Peter Berg's adaptation of the war memoir by ex-Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell.

The recent vogue for extreme solitary survival tales -- Life of Pi, All Is Lost, Gravity -- continues with another significant entry in Lone Survivor. A very intense, close-up visualization of the best-selling memoir about a botched Navy SEALs raid in Afghanistan written by the only man who lived to tell the tale, Marcus Luttrell, Peter Berg's film rates comparisons to Black Hawk Down as an unflinching account of a U.S. military operation in the Middle East gone very wrong. The film is concerned only with what directly confronts the characters -- and, by extension, the audience -- at any given moment. But even without any discernable political tilt in the point of view, other than for a clear enthusiasm for gung ho manliness, no spectator will be able to avoid pondering the question: Is such sacrifice worth it? Given the grim and painful nature of much of the drama, even critical plaudits and heavy promotion will have trouble pushing this Universal release beyond mid-level box office success.

Berg reportedly underwent at least a semblance of SEALs initiation in preparation for the film and the celebration of the he-man camaraderie stemming from the rigorous training period is certainly infectious early in the film. As is well known, these guys are the elite of the elite, the most physically fit, the best armed, the ones equipped with top survival skills and know-how. These men will not let you, or each other, down.

VIDEO: First 'Lone Survivor' Trailer Shows Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch on a Mission Gone Wrong

But they're not superheroes, either, as is soon be illustrated in graphic, bone-crunching, skin-shredding detail. Under cover of night on June 27-28, 2005, four SEALs are quietly dropped by helicopter into rugged mountains from which the men can view a village and possibly neutralize a Taliban bigwig and bin Laden insider who holds sway there and allegedly killed 20 Marines the week before. The quartet consists of Lt. Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Petty Officer 1st Class Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and Petty Officers 2nd Class Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster). Radio communication is sketchy but good enough, they believe, to rely on.

In the morning, their mission is compromised when a local shepherd and two youngsters, presumably his sons, spot them. The SEALs easily catch them but a major moral crisis arises: Do they kill them and proceed with their mission, tie them up (which they reject as simply delayed execution, as wild animals would surely attack them) or let them go? Despite the fact that the younger boy looks like a guaranteed rat, Murphy, the officer in charge, decides to release them. But the Americans can't establish radio contact to arrange for a pickup and, in no time at all, armed Taliban are everywhere.

With hindsight, one wonders if it might not have been possible to bind the shepherds and hold them while waiting for a rescue helicopter, and then release them. Murphy's fateful decision to extend them the benefit of the doubt appears primarily driven by fear of possible media charges of murdering civilians and a follow-up investigation. What the Americans get instead is a ferocious firefight that, for about a half-hour, approaches Saving Private Ryan-opening reel mayhem. Given the artillery power of Americans, many Taliban members go down, but they keep on coming -- and with increasingly powerful weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades.

VIDEO: Behind the Scenes of 'Lone Survivor'

As the foursome moves around, seeking better protection and fighting positions on a craggy, irregularly wooded landscape, they more injured by the minute. They are ripped by bullets and cut up by explosions and flying debris. To emphasize the trauma of impact, when the men tumble down a rocky slope, Berg begins in slow-motion, and then he shifts -- wham! -- into high gear the moment they slam into trees or rocks. This automatically makes you flinch. Unfortunately, it also yanks you out of the experience and into an awareness of the artifice, creating instant distance.

Thereafter, the intensity remains and even increases when the men jump off a steep cliff and land like rag dolls on rocks. But the increasing emphasis on bravura technique simultaneously results in a certain detachment. It's as if Berg felt compelled to one-up directors who have impressed with such bloody set-pieces in the past -- Peckinpah, Penn, Spielberg, Bigelow, you name them -- thus hoping to join this elite list of action filmmakers.

Berg's work here is at the top of his range, as previously displayed in Friday Night Lights and his other Middle East-set film, The Kingdom, and a far cry from his cringe-worthy most recent outing, Battleship, even though his key collaborators -- cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler, editor Colby Parker Jr. and composer Steve Jablonsky -- carry over from that job. The film is rugged, skilled, relentless, determined, narrow-minded and focused, everything that a soldier must be when his life is on the line.

Lone Survivor no doubt accomplishes everything it wants to achieve: It drops the viewer right in with the SEALs, makes you admire their toughness, bravery and abilities, and puts you through the wringer. It also makes you realize that, if they're forced to make a tough decision, it might not be the right one. When Luttrell's three colleagues eventually succumb to their innumerable wounds and a rescue chopper carrying eight more SEALs and eight Army soldiers is shot down by the Taliban, making for 19 American fatalities in all, the specter of tragedy and senseless loss suffuses everything and is repeated again at the end when photographs of the real-life soldiers and their loved ones parade by one by one.

For Luttrell, after all the other deaths, survival is still a long shot, and suspense stretches across his period of partial recovery while being hidden in a small village that's constantly subjected to Taliban inspection. One imagines there's a movie in what happens in Afghanistan everyday, and mostly they would likely inspire the same question: Is it worth it?

Wahlberg, at 42, is significantly older than Luttrell (29 at the time of the incident) or any of the 19 killed in the incident, but he still has the right stuff to convince the audience as a tough and super-fit SEAL whose breaking point is far beyond the norm. Kitsch, Foster and Hirsch are fully on the same page of intensity, which is the main requirement here beyond physicality.
Craft and technical contributions are united in the cause of rough-and-ready realism. The rocky, forested mountains and expansive deserts of New Mexico plausibly stand in for Afghan locations.

Venue: AFI Film Festival
Opens: Friday, Dec. 27 (Universal)
Production: Emmett/Furla Films, Films 44
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig, Yousuf Azami, Sammy Sheik
Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriter: Peter Berg, based on the book “Lone Survivor: An Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10” by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson
Producers: Peter Berg, Sarah Aubrey, Randall Emmett, Norman Herrick, Barry Spikings, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Vitaly Grigoriants
Executive producers: George Furla, Simon Fawcett, Braden Aftergood, Louis G. Friedman, Remington Chase, Stepan Martirosyn, Adi Shankar, Spencer Silna, Mark Damon, Brandt Andersen, Jeff Rice
Director of photography: Tobias A. Schliessler
Production designer: Tom Duffield
Editor: Colby Parker Jr.
Music: Steve Jablonsky
R rating, 121 minutes