War films don’t all follow the same strategy. Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” for instance, depicts a microcosm of society’s worst elements, with the ruling elite watching the carnage from a safe distance, and pinning any and all mistakes on their powerless underlings.
Then you’ve got something like “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which reminds us that there is no glory in war, and no winners either. Battle is ugly, horrifying and dehumanizing, and war itself is a condition that is anathema to the human experience.
To that latter category, add writer-director Peter Berg’s powerful new film “Lone Survivor,” based on the true story of Marcus Luttrell (played here by Mark Wahlberg), who was part of a mission in Afghanistan that went so horribly wrong that…well, let’s just say the title is a spoiler.
Berg doesn’t overload the exposition or character development, instead taking us through a typical morning with Luttrell and his comrades Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, who previously teamed with Berg on “Battleship”), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster). They distract themselves with competitions (Murphy and Dietz race around their base) and banter, but are primed for the work at hand.
Their superior, Lt. Cmdr. Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana), lays out their latest assignment: to take out Ahmed Shahd (Yousuf Azami), a Taliban fighter responsible for the deaths of 20 Marines in the last week alone. Our four heroes find themselves in a mountain above the village where intel says Shahd is hiding out, but their cover is blown by a passing crew of goatherds.
Murphy and Axelson argue over whether or not to kill them — on the one hand, witnesses could jeopardize the mission, but then there’s also the issue of how CNN will cover troops shooting unarmed civilians — and when the decision is made to let them go, the Americans quickly find themselves under fire.
This leads into the powerful centerpiece of “Lone Survivor,” a real-time combat sequence that portrays the danger and the terror of warfare as effectively as any movie since “Saving Private Ryan.” The editing and sound work here is masterful, as these actors effectively portray the mix of resourcefulness and helplessness the real soldiers must have felt in this desperate situation.
(Kudos, as well, to the stuntmen, who had to do a lot of rolling down mountains and off cliffs.)
The film never makes a grand statement about whether or not the war in Afghanistan is, per se, a mistake, but it does portray war itself as a disgusting folly. Berg sets up the cathartic moments we’re used to in movies like this, but then he pulls out the rug, reminding us that the cavalry doesn’t always miraculously show up in time to save the day.
“Lone Survivor” tells its story in a low-key way, managing to keep the human element front and center; amazingly, it avoids entirely demonizing the enemy, as we see that some Afghanis were willing to risk their lives to provide sanctuary for the broken and bleeding Luttrell.
Wahlberg gives another spectacularly unshowy performance; as with “The Fighter,” he never grandstands or reminds us how much acting he’s doing, but he’s ferociously in the moment at all times.
The cast in general is excellent — if there are standouts, they would definitely include Foster (if you don’t believe he’s one of contemporary film’s most chameleonic actors, watch his work here and in “Kill Your Darlings” back to back) and Alexander Ludwig (“The Hunger Games”) as a baby-faced new arrival who gets immediately plunged into the worst that war has to offer.
If there’s one big disappointment here, it comes when we see the photos of the actual soldiers — Berg’s cast looks a lot less ethnically-diverse than the real squadron, a regrettable lapse in a film that seems otherwise doggedly interested in authenticity.
It will be interesting to see how viewers along the ideological spectrum will interpret “Lone Survivor,” mainly because the film itself eschews politics and partisanship. We need a constant reminder that war is, indeed, hell, no matter what the motivations or rationalizations behind it. Whether or not you think troops should be sent into battle, “Lone Survivor” presents a gutting portrayal of what happens when they get there.