To his credit, and I mean massive credit, Lone Survivor star Mark Wahlberg knows that this ain't real.
From confronting Kanye to unabashedly disparaging anyone who dares to compare themselves or their lives to soldiers or heroes or anything resembling the men who willingly gave themselves to what became a "failed," and I hate that word failed in this situation, Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan that, as you might gather from the film's title, left a lone survivor.
That survivor is Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), upon whose memoir this film is based. Directed by Peter Berg, who has been both awesome (Friday Night Lights) and insipid (Battleship), Lone Survivor is a brutal film that won't be for the faint of heart or for those who are used to highly stylized, intensely edited war experiences that go heavy on the action but are about as graphic in terms of the actual cost of war as a Saturday morning cartoon. If you squirmed and turned away at "the" particularly graphic scene involving James Franco in 127 Hours, then I seriously doubt that you'll be able to deal with the brutality and unflinching material contained within D.P. Tobias Schliessler's uncompromising imagery.
The battle in question occurred on June 28, 2005 when four members of Navy SEAL Team 10 are tasked with capturing or killing Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami). The four men - leader Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, medic Lutrell (Wahlberg), sonar technician Matthew "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster), and gunner's mate Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), are to be a special ops team dropped close enough to a Taliban stronghold that they will be able to take out the rebel leader. An encounter with three goat herders leads to their presence being discovered by nearby Taliban and their routine mission becomes a fight for survival ultimately costing 19 lives in one of the conflict's most costly days in terms of human lives.
As Wahlberg is quite honest about pointing out, it is not possible in film to truly capture the relentless brutality of war and what these men truly endured. It is a story deserving of being told, but Wahlberg is also relentlessly honest about the fact that every single night when he came down from that New Mexico mountain where the film was actually shot he had options and luxuries these men couldn't even think about. While Lone Survivor contains fleeting glimmers of hope, particularly when a Pashtun local named Gulab (Ali Suliman) and his son defy their own safety to provide assistance to Luttrell, Berg has obviously and quite intentionally captured the "war is hell" aspect of war and paints an image that is unforgiving and not particularly hopeful.
It is to the credit of Berg's screenplay that you care immensely about these four men and those who will be sent in to try to rescue them even in a film that heavily emphasizes what feels like a futile mission. On a certain level, Lone Survivor elicited from me a feeling not too far removed from that experienced while watching a silent Robert Redford battle the elements, the obstacles, and his mind while trying to survive at sea. The difference, of course, is that the intentionality of those forces trying to destroy these men is simply devastating to watch and, I'd dare say, even if you know how all of this transpires Berg does an exemplary job of creating a film that simultaneously compels and repels.
Berg has stated that he felt a tremendous responsibility to truly honor the lives of those involved with Operation Red Wings, and while such a statement isn't exactly rare in Hollywood it's a statement that finds constant manifestation in Lone Survivor. From dialogue that is at times sparse yet intentional to Tom Duffield's precise production design, Amy Stofsky's exact and unsettling costume design and editing from Colby Parker, Jr. that captures both the big and little moments in this conflict with equal impact, Lone Survivor is constructed to be a film that matters about lives that matter.
Lone Survivor, even amidst all its deep reverence and relentless bravado, is not a perfect film. While the film's brutality and dedication to realism is admirable, there are times when Berg's more dramatic sensibilities get the best of him. The scene in the Pashtun village, for example, is a tremendous breath for audiences likely in need of a collective sigh, the dialogue that accompanies it wafts across the screen like pro-American propaganda. The machismo, as well, may very much be what it's like as a soldier facing the daily task of the impossible, but against the backdrop of this battle that we already know was lost it feels like an air of childishness that lessens the emotional impact of everything else that unfolds.
Universal Pictures is giving Lone Survivor a bit of an Oscar push, having served up both press screenings and provided press screeners for accredited members of the film media (this critic included). The film's most likely prospects are likely to be found in its technical areas, with Wahlberg himself likely a darkhorse to snag a Best Actor nomination in a performance that is certainly brave and courageous but, as he himself points out, ultimately safe.
It will be interesting to see what box-office can be found as, with the exception of Zero Dark Thirty, this generation has yet to really embrace contemporary war films or war films centered around the Mideast. Wahlberg's presence will most certainly help and the fact that he's wholly involved in the film's marketing is a significant plus. With mid-range box-office its most likely prospects, Lone Survivor is a film that may very well overwhelm on the big screen but, to be perfectly honest, overwhelmed is exactly how you should feel watching this film.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic