Lone Survivor, Peter Berg’s cinematic comeback after the scuttled Battleship is adapted from Marcus Luttrell’s account of his four-man navy SEAL mission to find a Taliban leader near the Afghanistan Pakistan border. After identifying their target, they lose radio contact with their base, and events take a turn for the worse when three goat herders stumble across their position.
Forced to take the herders prisoner, the soldiers (Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster) enter a protracted moralistic debate about what to do. Kill them and risk CNN revealing how brutal American soldiers have broken the Geneva Convention? Tie them up and hope the wolves don’t eat them? Or set them free and attempt to escape a hundred Taliban soldiers?
They make their decision and what follows is an exhausting and technically brilliant, hour-long visceral assault on your senses. In one scene, the fleeing soldiers – injured and under heavy gunfire – hurl themselves off a rocky ridge. The camera puts you in their tumbling descent to feel every smashed limb, every snapped ankle, and every cracked bone, before coming to a crunching stop against a tree. If your eyes aren’t watering by now, don’t panic, they’re about to do it again. Yet watching this onslaught, one can’t help think that this is as much cinematographer Tobias Schliessler’s film as it is Berg’s. Schliessler’s camera plunges you into this unrelenting fight beside these soldiers, the best use of this movie-making style since Spielberg’s audacious beach assault in Saving Private Ryan. The result is a genuine portrayal of the savagery of warfare that leaves you suffering the scorching agony of every gunshot and the sickening trauma of each shattered, protruding bone. The action scenes are truly unremitting, but by focussing all his technical brilliance on showing us the revulsion of war, Berg neglects the other, much-needed aspects of story, such as character.
The SEALs are introduced through a sluggish combination of cliched scenes – making the new guy dance in front of the platoon, the ‘Brotherhood’ advising a soldier when his wife pressures him into choosing colours for their nursey, whilst another wrestles with the prospect of shelling out $15,000 on a horse for his future wife’s wedding present. The Taliban, too, are nothing more than cliches, the main antagonist introduced to us in a scene where he hunts down and brutally murders one of his own villagers. Even when an empathetic Afghan rescues Luttrell (Wahlberg) and harbours him in his village, the emotion and events are explicitly fragrant of everything this genre has offered since 9/11. The actors try their best with all these elements. Wahlberg brings what narrow emotion he has and blurts it out for all to see, whilst Kitsch does an overly fantastic job embodying Berg’s flag-waving American patriotism. Hirsch, however, is left with very little to do, Foster even less.
But for all it lacks elsewhere, it is in its depiction of warfare where Lone Survivor soars higher than many other war films, and you can’t help but feel that that was Berg’s sole intention all along.