Can a war movie be gruelingly committed to realism—to plunging audiences into the trenches, to exposing them to battlefield horrors—and still feel like a gung-ho glorification of armed combat? Lone Survivor, a visceral new benchmark in band-of-brothers cinema, suggests that it can. The film is based on the 2007 memoir of former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, whose four-man team was charged with capturing a high-ranking Taliban leader in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. As the title suggests, the mission went FUBAR: Pinned down by enemy fire, the men put up a valiant fight, but were too hopelessly outnumbered to emerge victorious. Only Luttrell lived to tell the tale, thanks largely to the protection offered by villagers who stumbled upon him.
Recreating this doomed last stand as a breathlessly intense action sequence, Lone Survivor doesn’t skimp on the sheer hellishness of the ordeal—the bullets tearing through flesh, the bones shattering against rock, etc. Yet in its unrelenting, hyper-real way, the film also can’t quite resist viewing these unlucky grunts as fallen legends and paradigms of sheer macho perseverance. There’s a fine line between honoring the sacrifices of our men in uniform and romanticizing warfare itself. Director Peter Berg, who’s never been shy about his military fetish, charges headlong across that line, guns blazing and flag flapping. Remember, this is the guy who closed his last picture, the jingoistic Michael Bay imitation Battleship, with a confused airing of CCR’s “Fortunate Son.”
There’s a touch of the mythic to the film’s opening passage, in which Mark Wahlberg—cast here as Luttrell—waxes poetic about the storm that exists inside warriors, his voice-over musings set to a triumphantly rousing score by Explosions In The Sky. Luttrell’s comrades, well played by Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster, are depicted as swell guys with good senses of humor. The hero worship is a bit overpowering during this early stretch, but Lone Survivor picks up once the boys spring into action, swapping half-amusing banter during scenes of stealthy reconnaissance. For all his directorial shortcomings, Berg has a knack for capturing men at work; his depiction of special-ops maneuvering—of silently casing the enemy base, of planning the attack—is as compelling as the chaotic violence he orchestrates later.
Lone Survivor isn’t completely nuance free. It reserves some respect for the Pashtun people, whose codes of honor compelled them to protect Luttrell from the Taliban on his tail. There’s also a fine, dramatically urgent sequence—that Luttrell is adamant isn’t true to life—in which the four men heatedly debate what to do with a group of shepherds they’ve captured, weighing the ethics (and legality) of murder against the very real threat that these civilians will lead the enemy to them. Mostly, however, the film isn’t much interested in the morality of war, just the sheer ass-on-the-line gutsiness of those who fight in it.
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Furthermore, Berg’s salute to these fallen comrades would be more meaningful if he didn’t resort so frequently to action-movie clichés. “I am the reaper,” whispers Foster’s stoic marksman, as if aiming to unseat Barry Pepper’s character in Saving Private Ryan for the title of Coolest Sniper. There’s also a slow-motion shot of the whole team careening through the air, an epic explosion sending them skyward, and a scene in which Wahlberg’s wounded hero gets unlikely assistance from a cute Afghan moppet. (Maybe that’s pulled straight from the book, but it feels like the hoariest of plot twists here.) You don’t need to be a freedom-hating, troop-disrespecting monster to see that Lone Survivor veers uncomfortably close to making war look like badass spectacle. At times, it resembles a really violent, well-acted recruitment ad—albeit one aimed mostly at masochists and pain freaks.