Roughly half of Lone Survivor is a standard-issue Hollywood treatment of a recent, bloody and, in human terms, tragic 2005 Navy SEAL mission to eliminate an al-Qaida operative in the Afghanistan mountain region of Hindu Kush. But the other half—the hour or so of writer-director Peter Berg’s film dealing specifically with what happens when four men are cut off in Taliban country, scrambling under fire—is strong, gripping stuff, free of polemics, nerve-wracking in the extreme.
This is a straight, hard, do-or-die scenario, vividly re-created by Berg. He adapts the best-seller Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, written by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson.
Mark Wahlberg plays Luttrell. His fellow SEALs are portrayed by Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, with Eric Bana as their commander back at Bagram Air Field, monitoring what becomes a terrible ambush. Berg’s movie gets through its introductions efficiently, though without much in the way of character detail. We know from the start who lives and who dies; Wahlberg’s Luttrell provides the voice-over at the outset, while we see him being saved by a rescue team.
The heart of the film is pure crisis and response. Kitsch plays Mike Murphy, the special ops team leader; Foster, the communications specialist Matthew “Axe” Axelson. Hirsch’s Danny Dietz, gunner’s mate, completes the quartet, dispatched by helicopter to a remote mountainside perch near the village where their target has been spotted.
And then it goes wrong. They’re ambushed, and for the better part of Lone Survivor we see them shot, thrown down boulder-strewn inclines, fight back, attempt to regain a foothold. The actors know what’s required of them. You wouldn’t call an actor such as Foster an under-player, but Berg manages to get all his actors in the same movie and keep conventional histrionics to a minimum. The situations that make up Lone Survivor are harrowing to begin with; they don’t need goosing.
Berg shot the film in the mountains and sound stages of New Mexico, and the size of the picture feels right for the scope of this true-life story. The adaptation doesn’t make room for much beyond the kinetic horror of the ambush. When Luttrell meets a local villager (Ali Suliman) who harbors the American from the Taliban, the movie takes a couple of shortcuts back into Hollywood territory. Sometimes, things that really happened have a way of seeming slightly phony onscreen.
At its best, though, Lone Survivor accomplishes its mission, which is to respect these men, dramatize what they went through and let the more troubling matters of moral consequence trickle in where, and how, they may. (In one tense sequence, the men debate the fate of goat herders they encounter.) Wahlberg remains one of our most reliable and least actorly of movie stars, innately macho but vulnerable enough to seem like a human being caught in an inhuman situation. Berg’s film pays attention to every setback, every moment lost or won on that mountain.
Lone Survivor (R) ★★★☆☆