Entering Lone Survivor with a hint of trepidation is to be expected given it comes from director Peter Berg, the man whose last film was the also military-based sinkhole Battleship. Fear not though for Lone Survivor is based on a true story (no aliens here) and boasts a cast of A-list character actors and packs enough emotional, as well as action-based, punch to make your head spin and your eyes run.
Based on the events of Operation Red Wing, Lone Survivor sees a group of four Navy SEALs dropped deep in Taliban territory in Afghanistan. Led by Lieutenant Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) their mission was to observe and report on the supposed presence of high profile Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. Having found Shah in a village in the mountains the team soon realise they have no way of relaying their message back to base. When a group of local goat herders find them Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson (Ben Foster) believes they should kill them for fear of having their position revealed and the mission compromised. When an argument ensues, involving Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Murphy informs them that they are releasing the herders, as per the rules of engagement and pulling out. But one of the herders bolts for it, making it to the village only to inform a 200 strong army of Taliban members as to their whereabouts. Before long the team of SEALs are out manned and out gunned with their back-up none the wiser.
It would be easy for Lone Survivor to fall into a Michael Bay scenario of military porn, a chance for Hollywood to help the US military out by staging an expensive recruitment video. On the surface it bears a passing resemblance to French film Special Forces but Lone Survivor has one very important message it is anxious to make. Opening with documentary footage of Navy SEALs training, it is clear that these are the elite of special forces, drilled to within an inch of the body’s tolerance and then pushed further. While these men are able to take on the harshest of environments they form a bond greater than anything people outside of the battlefield could possibly hope to fathom; the very definition of Shakespeare’s band of brothers.
Of equal importance to Berg is the clarity with which he portrays the native Afghans compared to the Taliban. The villagers who dwell high in the mountains of this war-torn country live by a code just as sacred and precious as those that the SEALs live by. It’s a refreshing take for an American film to analyse, even if it is only done so in the final third.
Berg’s direction is typically kinetic and endlessly visceral. The slow-build start, which does a great job of showing the bond these characters share, allows for a genuine investment and heart-pounding gunfight that lasts the entire of the second act. By the time the SEALs have no choice but to hurl themselves down rocky terrain you feel every impact, bruise, cracked bone and torn flesh as if it were happening to you. In fact, so violent and accurately does Berg, who also wrote the film, capture this it’s hard not to grimace at the presumed veracity with which it is shown.
The four key cast members are all on solid form. Wahlberg playing that friendly-yet-hardened solider he’s done well in the past, most notably Shooter. Emile Hirsch returns to the form promised with Into The Wild while never feeling the need to steal the limelight. Foster, normally more at home playing a snivelling villain, injects Axe with a sense of gritted loyalty, making his reasoning behind wanting to kill the herders more than understandable. Meanwhile Berg’s Friday Night Lights running back Taylor Kitsch proves why, despite the back-to-back box office bombs of Battleship and John Carter, he still has massive screen presence. His Murphy is cool under fire, the kind of man you’d happily follow into a hellish gunfight all the while trusting his medal-winning leadership.
Despite a spoilerific title Lone Survivor is a gripping, gritty and gruelling watch for all the right reasons. Passionate and profound it never feels gratuitous but instead admirably pays homage to a group of soldiers who would happily die for each other.