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Directed by Peter Berg
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig, Jerry Ferrara
Action, Biography, Drama
It’s a certifiable shame that I didn’t see Lone Survivor a few weeks ago because if I had it surely would have made it into my top five movies of the year. So while I sit here and debate whether or not to amend my list, hold onto it for next year’s crop (it opens wide today, making its inclusion in 2013 or 2014 somewhat debatable) or just silently stew about it, one thing is for certain: Lone Survivor is a great film. And no matter how much I’m kicking myself for not holding off on making my Top Ten List until I saw Lone Survivor (I had a feeling this might happen) I’m certainly glad that it was what it was. And what it was is one of the best war movies out there.
Through the thousands of war movies brought to the big screen, accounts both true to life and inventons of fiction, we’ve learned the genre is inherently difficult to pull off right. Between remaining true to the actual events, creating compelling and rich characters that all get enough screen time to make a lasting impression, and bringing a sense of gravitas and dignity to these often harrowing situation, a lot of efforts belly flop. And for good reason. War films have to be a potpourri of drama and action. We need to care for the fate of these characters and wish their well being. We must, more than anything, be absolutely invested.
This is where Peter Berg ought to stand proud. With Lone Survivor, he’s given us a sense of brotherhood and camaraderie that’s as organic as they come; a far cry from the whitewashed hooah inlaid in many lesser band of brothers films where we only vaguely know the characters crying out for their mamas as their intestines sag from their bellies. And though we don’t spend a tremendous amount of time with each character individually, Berg, as a director and screenwriter both, gives each enough traits for us to identify with them and understand them as people, not just soldiers.
Group leader and celebrated hero Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) debates buying his wife-to-be an expensive Arabian horse as a marriage present. Axe (Ben Foster) reveals he’s a rough-hewn pragmatist willing to make the hard calls. Danny (Emile Hirsch) is no newbie to war but he is very much the baby of the group and his relationship to the others is as earnest as it is heartbreaking.
Ironically enough, it’s Mark Wahlberg‘s lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell, who is the least distinct of them all. While Foster, Kitsch, and Hirsch are busy putting in some of the best performances of their careers, Wahlberg is a step behind. And while he hardly detracts from the overall impact and certainly serves as a suitable hunk of meaty marble for the role, once again he’s the rock from which other actors vault. It’s hard to say whether Wahlberg is just an excellent go-to guy for blander role or if he is just incapable of elevating his character to a place of transcendent complexity, but even here, he’s miles away from proving he’s a “great” actor.
But even more important than the characters, Berg has created a visceral experience unlike any other. As these four brave men find themselves surrounded by death, we feel like we’re right in the shit with them. Bullets fly from behind locales, singing around their heads, sometimes meeting flesh and erupting in red burps, and the sense of confusion is almost as terrifying as the fact that they’re getting shot at and struck. It’s like we’re amongst their ranks when the camera surges back and forth, tracking where the enemy might come from next. Transportative in effect, each scene is so alive with chaos and enveloped in a sense of dread that you’ll be reaching to squeeze the armrest. A series of sequences in which our heroes take a leap of faith is so gut-wrenching that you feel each and every bump and slam they encounter on their way down a mountain side. Truly, there hasn’t been action this game-changing since Stephen Speilberg‘s Saving Private Ryan.
Even if you’re not aware of the true story behind this tale, Berg opens the film with the aftermath of this failed Afghanistan mission. All the men are dead, save for one. But even the fact that the set-up reveals the fate of these frogmen doesn’t diminish the sense of white-knuckle stakes so much as it amplifies them. By expecting their coming demise, we know that life-and-death hangs in the balance of each instance. So as their bodies collect more and more bullets, our jaws hang as we wonder what will materialize as the ultimate deathblow.
Backed up by blinding cinematography from Tobias A. Schliessler and an agonizingly plucky score (a throwback to Berg’s Friday Night Light days) courtesy of a Steve Jablonsky, Explosions in the Sky collaboration, Lone Survivor is the closest equivalent to an artsy war film we’ve seen. Also commendable is Berg’s sensitive attention to “the other.” There is no attempt to stir the crowd into a “fuck the Taliban” frenzy. It doesn’t even feel like us vs. them. It just feels like hell.