Lone Survivor: I’ve long given director Peter Berg the benefit of the doubt, because he’s spent most of his career making movies that either turn out better than their loglines would suggest, or at least aspire to turn out better. Lone Survivor is Berg’s most purely serious movie since Friday Nights, and seems poised to make up for last year’s Battleship debacle. But between these two movies and The Kingdom, Berg seems intent on carving out a niche for himself as the go-to chronicler and worshipper of modern soldiers—a more focused version of the Michael Bay he so frighteningly imitated with his board-game robot-alien movie. Berg seems more immersed than Bay in military culture beyond recruitment ads, but he’s equally in thrall: Lone Survivor both opens and closes with real-life footage and photos of the Navy SEALS it’s based on, an ostensible tribute to fallen men that in its volume doubles as an insistence of the story’s beyond-movie legitimacy.
But as much as it doesn’t want to admit it, Lone Survivor is a movie—a darker flipside to Zero Dark Thirty, wherein four SEALs (Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster) head out on a mission to grab a Taliban leader in Afghanistan. They come upon some Afghani shepherds, and are faced with the choice of killing them or letting them go in a dilemma articulated through some clumsy dialogue about the rules of engagement. They decide to follow those rules and let them go; the shepherds tip off the Taliban, and disaster ensues. After cursory set-up (long-distance wives, good-natured manly joshing), a near-majority of the movie is basically a single intense battle sequence in the aftermath of their humane decision. Berg goes less aggressively stylized than usual, depicting the messy brutality of war. It’s a viscerally effective and terrifying piece of cinema; it’s also numbing, not unlike a slasher movie: the slow-mo SEAL-deaths aren’t played for kicks, but Berg does linger on the carnage. It’s meant, again, as tribute to their towering bravery: he often shoots the actors from slightly below, making them look huge and imposing even among tall trees, and a surging Explosions in the Sky score lets you know that this is a serious movie. But the movie doesn’t feel particularly personal; apart from a few nice mid-aughts period details (the troops love Anchorman and Napoleon Dynamite!), the soldiers have only the barest of personalities.
It hopefully won’t spoil too much of a true story called Lone Survivor to say that Wahlberg escapes the firefight. He winds up in an Afghani village whose inhabitants provide unexpected protection, and at this point the movie becomes fascinating, for both that moving turn—Afghanis risking their lives for a stranger rather than turn him over to the Taliban—and for the way Berg has buried the lead all along. He treats the most human and unexpected section of the story as more or less an extended coda—an anecdote on Wahlberg’s way home. Maybe some of Lone Survivor‘s uncomfortable aftertaste comes from its timing. It caps a year of survival stories—Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and All Is Lost—with one that barely seems interested in survival as compared to honorable, senseless death. This movie works from a limited point of view, not narratively but thematically.