“Lone Survivor,” a seriously intended and well-crafted movie about modern warfare and warriors might well be Peter Berg’s atonement for “Battleship.” Mark Wahlberg stars as real life Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, whose book about a secret operation that went terribly wrong served as the basis for the movie.
The title actually gives away more than the casual viewer might want to know going in, but there isn’t a great deal of suspense in this movie anyway. A pall of gloom hangs over the film from the opening frame, and we can feel in our bones that things aren’t going to go well.
Truth be told, “Lone Survivor” takes way too long to get moving, and the early scenes, intended to help us get to know and identify with the four main characters (played by Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster), provide less character development than intended. Once the main characters are in the field, on a dangerous mission to capture a Taliban leader, the movie picks up speed quickly. The SEALs encounter a group of unarmed Afghan civilians, who are incongruously carrying a radio. Although they suspect that the Afghans will alert Taliban fighters to their presence, their rules of engagement (and international law) dictate that the SEALs let them go. They do, and are attacked in short order.
The bloody combat sequences are where this movie lives and breathes, and in fact those invite comparison to “Saving Private Ryan” and “Black Hawk Down.” The SEALs are well-armed and well-trained and take out plenty of enemy fighters, but they are badly outnumbered and the Taliban have immediate access to reinforcements, who continue to appear with heavier and heavier armaments. The main characters are shot and shredded before our eyes, and in some of the most horrifying sequences, tumble down a steep, rocky slope, slamming into trees and rocks on the way. Berg shoots much of these stunts in slow motion, abruptly shifting to normal speed as they hit things. It’s painful to watch.
Wahlberg is effective as Luttrell, although he’s at least 15 years older than Luttrell was in 2005 when the events depicted in the movie took place. He has the physical stuff to convince us he’s a SEAL, and is suitably intense. Taylor Kitsch, trying to rebound from a disastrous 2012 in which he appeared no fewer than three critically-drubbed flops (“John Carter,” “Battleship,” “Savages”) matches Wahlberg’s intensity, as do Hirsch and Foster. Technically, this is a superior production.
That war is hell isn’t a new message but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t bear repeating. “Lone Survivor” achieves most of its goals. You feel like you’re in the middle of the action, you sweat and flinch with the main characters and feel their sacrifice. Don’t expect this to be entertaining. A Rambo movie it ain’t. You may come away with the suspicion that you’re supposed to feel a surge of patriotic pride, and that’s a tougher sell, when the question the movie poses most clearly is whether this was all worth it. But that aside, “Lone Survivor” powerfully presents the professionalism, skill and sacrifice of the warriors, and it may be difficult to not to feel a lump in the throat when you see the photographs of the actual participants during the end credits.