Leaving the summer-movie frivolity of "Battleship" behind him, writer-director Peter Berg delivers his most serious-minded work to date with "Lone Survivor," a scorching, often unbearably brutal account of a June 2005 military mission that claimed the lives of 19 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Kunar province. Adapted from the eyewitness narrative of now-retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, this dramatic reconstruction of the ill-fated Operation Red Wings is perhaps the most grueling and sustained American combat picture since "Black Hawk Down," as well as a prime example of how impressive physical filmmaking can overcome even fundamental deficiencies in script and characterization. Berg's blunt, pummeling style offers few nuances and makes no apologies, but his broad brushstrokes have clearly found an ideal canvas in this grimly heroic rendering of hell on earth.
Given the public's general aversion to movies about America's post-9/11 incursions into the Middle East (a rare exception like "Zero Dark Thirty" notwithstanding), it remains an open question whether the Universal release will resonate commercially when it begins a limited run Dec. 27, followed by a wide opening Jan. 10. Still, a strong awards push and appreciative reviews should stir interest in a picture that, despite the sometimes numbing effect of its nonstop carnage, builds shrewdly to a cathartic and surprising conclusion. And while Berg's relentless, can-you-take-this depiction of courage under fire will be most ardently embraced by viewers on the right, Luttrell's survival story has its own built-in moral complexities that should strike a chord with audiences regardless of political persuasion.
Iraq War films in recent years, but no studio picture has addressed the still-ongoing conflict in Afghanistan at such length and detail as "Lone Survivor." The thrust here is decidedly personal rather than analytical, presenting one of the worst disasters in special-forces history as a mournful tribute to Luttrell's fallen comrades; those seeking a more expansive history of the conflict, an understanding of the enemy mindset or a critical interrogation of America's war on terror should look elsewhere. Still, in clearing a narrative path through the author's unabashedly patriotic memoir (co-written with Patrick Robinson), Berg has attempted to honor his subjects without jingoism, largely eliminating Luttrell's gung-ho rhetoric and attacks on the "liberal media," whose insistence on strict rules of engagement he partly blames for endangering him and his men in the first place.
Roughly the book's entire first half is compressed into the film's opening-credits sequence, a training-footage montage that bracingly suggests the near-impossible levels of physical strength, mental toughness and overall stamina it takes to join the ranks of the Navy SEALs. Among these elite soldiers are Hospital Corpsman Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), a 29-year-old Texas native, and his buddies Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Gunner's Mate Danny P. Dietz (Emile Hirsch); and Sonar Technician Matthew "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster), all deployed to Afghanistan in 2005.
Berg is no stranger to enclaves of American masculinity ("Friday Night Lights") or infernos in the Middle East ("The Kingdom"), but "Lone Survivor's" life-in-the-military prologue doesn't inspire much confidence: The character delineation is weak, the observations pedestrian, the style marred by recruitment-video aesthetics, all grinding voiceover and overactive music (by the never-subtle Steve Jablonsky and the instrumental rock band Explosions in the Sky). Compared with the intimacy and insight of "Restrepo," Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's 2010 documentary about Army troops in Afghanistan, the blend of camaraderie and competitiveness here comes off as second-rate macho bluster. But the film begins to find its footing as it lays out the strategic groundwork for Operation Red Wings, a mission targeting Taliban commander Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami) and his fighters in the mountains of Kunar, where Murphy, Luttrell, Dietz and Axelson are sent in as a surveillance-and-reconnaissance team.
Trouble arises when the four SEALs, despite having carefully concealed themselves along the slopes of Sawtalo Sar, are discovered by a trio of Afghan goatherds. While these unarmed civilians do not appear connected with the Taliban, their hostility is readily apparent, and the SEALs must decide whether to ensure the goatherds' silence by killing them -- the correct decision from a tactical standpoint -- or to release them in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. After some glib but tense debate about the potential ramifications of either option, the team, led by Murphy, votes to free them.
Confirming the SEALs' worst fears, the youngest of the goatherds is shown racing down the mountain -- in unnecessary, faux-suspenseful slow-motion -- to inform the Taliban leaders. As clumsy as the filmmaking can be in these moments, Berg's inelegant style turns fully immersive once the deadly ambush begins: There's a chilling moment when Luttrell and his men glimpse Shah's men lined up along a distant ridge, driving home just how outnumbered they are (about 140 to four), their slim chances of survival further weakened by their inability to contact HQ. The long, roughly 40-minute sequence that follows is a blood-spattered tour de force of physical mayhem, as the SEALs are beset on all sides by Taliban fighters, raining down bullets and rocket-propelled grenades from their advantageous positions higher up the mountain.
As Luttrell and his men return fire, racking up no shortage of Taliban casualties, what registers is not just the ferocity of the action or the terrifying omnipresence of the enemy, but also the ruggedness of the terrain (New Mexico stood in for Afghanistan). Colby Parker Jr.'s jittery editing and Tobias Schliesser's shallow, limited-vantage compositions are ideally suited to the horrors of this rough-and-tumble warfare, and for all the agony of bullets ripping through flesh, the cruelest moments are those in which the SEALs seek cover by hurling themselves downhill, the rocks and branches becoming lethally sharp obstacles beneath their feet. Thanks in particular to excellent sound work (by mixer David Brownlow) and fearsome stunt coordination by Kevin Scott, every fall, scrape and curse registers with tremendous impact. Of particular note is the special-effects makeup work by Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger, devising ghastly prosthetic injuries that the camera observes in unsparing closeup; even viewers who profess to have seen it all will be hard-pressed not to flinch.
While the story's sobering outcome is clear enough from the title, the chain of events by which Luttrell emerges from this ordeal -- including a daring helicopter rescue attempt staged with startling immediacy -- will prove engrossing and ultimately quite moving for those not already in the know. Berg's script actually improves on (and necessarily truncates) the book's unwieldy telling by withholding contextual details until the end, allowing the viewer to appreciate the full measure of Luttrell's fear and disorientation until his ultimate recovery. Suffice to say that while "Lone Survivor" naturally invites debate as to whether or not the SEALs were right to let the goatherds go free, that courageous deed is later mirrored by another from an entirely unexpected source; together these bookending incidents form an implicit argument about the power of individual acts of conscience amid the moral murkiness of war.
Each of Luttrell's three slain comrades gets his courageous final moment, enshrined with last-stand heroics and additional use of slow-mo. Yet the heart-swelling solemnity of these scenes is undercut by the fact that Wahlberg's co-stars haven't been given many opportunities to individuate their characters beyond standard demonstrations of bravery, battle-readiness, fury and despair. Still, the actors acquit themselves well in and out of combat, with the ever-chameleonlike Foster disappearing the most into his role as Axe, every bit as sharp and deadly as his nickname. Kitsch, like Berg a refugee from "Battleship," shows his own promising signs of career rehabilitation here as Murphy, the team's goodhearted, self-sacrificing leader. Hirsch brings a touch of callowness to the part of Dietz, the youngest among them, but no less a fighter to the end.
Whether he's trying to calm his more hotheaded brothers in arms or pulling shrapnel out of his leg, Wahlberg's Luttrell provides a steady emotional anchor, his toughness leavened by a sense of vulnerable humanity. Of the other actors, Eric Bana offers a welcome familiarity as Lt. Cmdr. Erik S. Kristensen, seen primarily in cutaways back to HQ. While the Arab thesps have been cast primarily on the basis of their ability to look menacing and wield an AK-47, Ali Suliman (recently seen in "The Attack") has a crucial role in the third act, testifying to the cultural and political complexity of a nation where not every man in a turban is necessarily an enemy.