After the satisfyingly triumphant depiction of U.S. Navy SEALs at their deadly and efficient best in last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” a wrenching, counterbalancing picture is offered in “Lone Survivor,” which shows a harsher, more unpredictable outcome to this sort of pitiless, off-the-grid black-ops work.
In sustained intensity and heartbreaking calamity, writer-director Peter Berg’s pummeling adaptation of former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s unsparing memoir of a notorious 2005 raid in Afghanistan gone horribly wrong merits some comparison to that modern classic of military miscalculation, “Black Hawk Down.”
It’s told without apparent political agenda and with great respect for the remarkable skills, professionalism and dedication of its American warriors. But the stark, underlying message of the thing is clear – that U.S. military might, for all its overwhelming technology and firepower, is still a volatile enterprise subject to the cruel whims of fate and failures of human judgment.
Berg, whose resume runs from the ridiculous (“Battleship”) to the sublime (“The Kingdom,” “Friday Night Lights”), reportedly underwent with his cast some rigorous SEAL training in preparation for the film. And it shows in a terse, gut-level approach to the story, in its gritty authenticity and in its matter-of-fact disposition to lightning-quick violence.
Briskly and without much background, we’re introduced to the four members of an elite SEAL team – Lt. Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Petty Officers Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) – as they’re dispatched on a hazardous mission.
Under cover of night, the four are dropped by helicopter into the rugged Afghan mountains. Their assignment: to take out Ahmed Shahd (Yousuf Azami), a Taliban chieftain said to be responsible for the deaths of 20 Marines. As the SEALs creep up on the village where Shahd is hiding, their cover is blown by a passing band of goatherds.
Faced with the options of tying up the civilians and leaving them to the mercy of foraging animals, killing them and risking criminal and media repercussions, or releasing them and hoping they keep quiet until an evacuation chopper can arrive, the SEALs make a fateful decision. They set the goatherds free, and very shortly they find themselves betrayed, besieged by increasing hordes of Taliban fighters and battling for their very lives.
This sets up the film’s grueling, tumbling, flesh-rending signature sequence that will undoubtedly invite comparison with the thudding, close-in violence of warfare that so distinguished the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” In a masterly melding of harrowing stunt work, sound design, special effects and editing, the real-time combat sequences underscore a simple truism that apparently can’t be stated often enough – that war is hell.
The film shies away from grand statements, but with its brawny cast (especially Wahlberg, who at 42 impressively stands up to the rigors of the role), its punishing sequences of bloody battle, and even with a title that’s the ultimate spoiler, “Lone Survivor” offers up an exhilarating and excruciating account of men in battle.
One disappointment, though, is revealed by an end sequence with photos of the real-life SEALs. The actual soldiers were clearly a much more ethnically diverse group than the all-white team depicted in the film.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsh, Eric Bana, Ben Foster
(Strong bloody war violence and pervasive language)