As far as wartime sagas go, Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor is certainly a technical marvel and it’s nothing if not genuine at heart, but as a film it’s far too underdeveloped and misguided to really have any impact. Setting out to try to stake some sort of really uneasy middle ground between the procedural elements of Zero Dark Thirty, the artistic elements of The Thin Red Line, and the unsubtle nature of a headshot packed first person shooter video game, the end results are all over the map, never successfully coalescing to make any new or groundbreaking points about the mettle and tenacity of the American armed forces.
Based on the written account by former U.S. Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell (played here by Mark Wahlberg), the story concerns a botched assassination attempt of a leading Taliban official in 2005. Luttrell was the medic and second in command of a four person team (including Taylor Kitsch as the brains of the operation, Emile Hirsch as the communications specialist, and Ben Foster as the navigator) sent to a part of the mountains where radio communication was almost nonexistent and they were outnumbered by about 200 men in the village they were sent to check out. Discovered by local scouts for the Taliban, the crew are stranded, alone, and forced into a firefight with the local militia.
Berg begins and ends his film as earnestly as possible, with codas designed to look at the real life sacrifices and commitments of the troops who put their lives on the line every day. At least Berg comes direct with what his political beliefs are regarding warfare, and to his credit he never talks down to the troops or sees what they are doing as anything more than a job where people want to get paid and do something they see as rewarding. And that’s fine. It’s one of Berg’s stronger assets, but it’s also one that he never wants to explore.
For all the humanity of scenes where ground forces oh-so-briefly try to create characters themselves by saying what their wives are like back home or the team’s C.O. (played nicely by Eric Bana) gets chewed up by a higher up safe in an office, Berg still can’t shake the fact that he’s more comfortable with blanketing the audience in bombast instead of character and nuance. We’re told early on that this is a mission that has a lot of moving parts – possibly too many for only a four man crew on the ground – but everything looks and feels as cut and dry as an unexceptionally told, but well crafted action thriller. It’s dime store storytelling with a thin veneer of pedigree to it.
Even Berg’s greatest ambitions undercut the fact that he just can’t get a handle on the material. The attention to detail with regard to military protocol is certainly there, but only once does it ever actually forward the story in a meaningful way, with other supposedly real events being handled more like gasping plot twists instead of incidents that ultimately lead to a tragedy. The positively stunning cinematography from Tobias Schliessler and the mournful musical score from Steve Jablonsky and post-rock outfit Explosions in the Sky (with whom Berg collaborated on Friday Night Lights) are the most effective things in the film outside of the performances, but they’re often used to the cheapest of ends. When men have to start dying in the film’s nearly 45 minute long firefight, they’re so lovingly shot and crafted that it’s exploitative; bullets ripping through flesh in slow motion while people make Christ-like poses exploitative. For a film so intent to show the harsh realities of war, Berg can’t find anything outside of the most unrealistic ways to portray it. It’s even hard to determine if he’s holding back in hopes of getting the film a larger audience or if he just doesn’t know how to do this tastefully.
When the film is at its wonkiest, at least the cast remains consistently adept at portraying fear, exhaustion, and shock once things start to get hairy. It’s probably the best assembly of actors in this respect since Deliverance, but I wish it was in service of a much better film. Wahlberg might ostensibly be the lead, but he’s not given much to do outside the unit outside of being a level headed optimist until the film’s vastly more interesting and frustratingly underdeveloped final thirty minutes. Kitsch gets to be disarmingly thoughtful as the more analytical team leader, and Foster is particularly noteworthy as the one member of the group who would most willingly break the rules of engagement if it means safely getting off the mountainside.
There’s not one, but three good movies inside of Lone Survivor all waiting to get out, but none of them ever do. Everyone’s efforts are the best all around, and while the film looks great there’s no sense of what it’s trying to accomplish other than to gain respect for the troops. That’s not a bad thing, but when the film itself has three different and completely dissimilar ways of showing it, that’s just the sign of a messy film.