Peter Berg, director of last year’s megabomb Battleship, returns with another over-the-top dud. This time, he offers us a war film based on tragic true events — the 2005 massacre of a group of Navy SEALs on a reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan — and the results are just as woebegone.
Even though the film cost one-quarter ($50 million) the budget of the earlier flop, it still seems like a tough sell aside from military fetishists with a masochistic streak. Starring Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell, the real-life sole survival of the attack, it must’ve looked great on paper, but it’s all in the execution, and that’s where it comes up short.
Scripting from Luttrell’s memoirs, Berg divides the film into three acts: getting to know the SEALs who will be going on the mission that will result in a “lone survivor”; planning the mission in extensive detail; and — finally — chronicling the disastrous result.
Act One stretches out interminably, with the casual banter between the soldiers consisting of the usual dick-wagging alongside occasional references to the wives/girlfriends waiting for them at home so that we’ll see them as real human beings. The four men assigned to the mission are Luttrell, Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Axelson (Ben Foster).
Act Two, the planning segment, is packed with so much military tech-speak and ancillary characters that one loses track of what exactly is going on. I’ll make it clear here: they’re to parachute into the rugged mountain terrain outside of Asadabad to locate and take down a local Taliban leader.
When they reach the mountain, in Act Three, they spot their target and everything seems to be on track, but they’re discovered by a group of goatherds whom they quickly capture and restrain. Convinced they’re working with the Taliban, everyone is all for killing them with the exception of Luttrell, who orders them to be released and the compromised mission abandoned.
Of course, the Afghanis immediately go charging down the hill to report the American spies. Meanwhile, the SEALs discover that their communication equipment is at first sporadic..and then nonexistent. When they’re able to deliver enough of a message to send a rescue helicopter to the mountain, it’s shot down. What follows is an interminable siege during which we watch the soldiers, now sitting ducks, die slowly, agonizingly and in excruciating detail. They get shot, fall down hills, get shot some more, fall down some more.
When I saw KNB EFX Group (The Walking Dead) on the credits, I knew there were going to be some seriously nasty wounds depicted, but Good God — every time these men fall down the mountain there are copious inserts of various body parts being broken and torn and ripped asunder. With these punishingly graphic sequences, Berg the filmmaker seems to be screaming “See how terribly they suffered?”, but it feels far more exploitative than earnest.
The pacing doesn’t help, either. Between attacks, the action stalls as the men freak out, press their bones back into their skin and utter short, obscenity-laden observations.
There aren’t really any notable performances in the film, but it’s not the fault of the actors; they aren’t given anything to say aside from the standard swagger and swearing. The most “acting” one can find are the two fairly over-the-top meltdowns provided by the usually reliable Hirsch and Foster. Most of the Afghani characters are of the “nyah-ha-ha” villain variety. And why do they go down easily with one shot while the Americans are practically indestructible?
I wish I could say that other tech aspects redeem it, but Transformers veteran Steve Jablonsky’s score is all blast and bombast, and Tobias Schliesser’s otherwise fine cinematography resorts to clichéd shaky-cam as a way of generating suspense.
It’s clear that Berg admires the armed forces and their bravery in the face of unconscionable adversity, but Lone Survivor has reduced valor to the likes of a video game. It’s simplistic, jingoistic torture porn for the military set — and a disservice to the men who lost their lives in the siege.