Watching movies like Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips, you might get the impression that Navy SEALs are immune to failure. That they’re bulletproof superheroes clad in camo. But Peter Berg wants us to see a different side of heroism in Lone Survivor — the side sometimes found in defeat. Based on Marcus Luttrell’s first-person account of an ill-fated 2005 SEAL operation in Afghanistan, the unsparing film nobly attempts to mine triumph from tragedy by showing us how courage and character emerge even when things go disastrously wrong.
Berg, the actor-turned-director behind 2004’s Friday Night Lights and 2007’s The Kingdom, has fast become a sort of specialist in macho cinema. But that style of storytelling is trickier to pull off than it seems. It needs to give us more than gung ho military jargon, backslapping band-of-brothers camaraderie, and crimson arias of violence. It requires nuance. And in Lone Survivor, Berg never quite finds the right balance. It isn’t clear what he wants to tell us besides ”War is hell.”
On that point, at least, there can be no argument. The film opens with a real-life montage of the SEALs’ notoriously arduous training process. Berg, who also wrote the screenplay, lets that prologue do a lot of the heavy lifting for him in terms of character development. Right off the bat, we know that these soldiers are low-paid patriots being put through the wringer to protect our freedom. Yes, the SEALs in the film — played with impressive grit and vulnerability by Mark Wahlberg (as Luttrell), Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, and especially Ben Foster — tease each other about wives and girlfriends back home. Yet before any of that is allowed to sink in, they’re being air-dropped into hostile territory.
Their mission, called Operation Red Wings, deposits them deep into the inhospitable mountains of Kunar Province to capture or kill a senior Taliban commander responsible for murdering Marines. But the assignment is quickly compromised when they’re confronted by a family of Afghan shepherds who may or may not be affiliated with the enemy. Should they kill them or let them go? The choice isn’t black-and-white. The rules of engagement say one thing, their guts another. Tragically, the right decision is the one that seals their fates. Soon they’re pinned down taking fire, outmanned and outgunned. The action that follows is excruciating and relentless, and Berg doesn’t spare the audience. If anything, he rubs our noses in the blood, sweat, and tears of combat. Bullets pierce bodies with sickening force and frequency, bones shatter, men die (the film’s title is its own spoiler). And while the SEALs fight bravely, there’s a sensation of excess to it all. Like the brutal 12 Years a Slave and The Passion of the Christ, Lone Survivor makes us question just how much realism we need or want. Berg has made a powerful film and an important reminder of what really happens when we send men and women off to war. It’s just too bad that subtlety isn’t a stronger weapon in his arsenal. B-