Universal’s indie-financed “Lone Survivor,” a tough, unremitting, authentic, and intimate Afghan war film starring Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and Eric Bana, had its world premiere at AFI FEST November 12. I have long been a Peter Berg believer. He is a gifted director, who can now be forgiven for “Battleship,” a misbegotten Hasbro/Universal concoction that he agreed to do so that he could make “Lone Survivor.” When his producing partner Sarah Aubrey insisted that he read the memoir by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell during production on “Hancock,” Berg locked himself in a conference room and finished Luttrell’s recounting of the failed June 28, 2005 SEAL Team 10 mission “Operation Red Wings” in one sitting.
Luckily Luttrell liked “The Kingdom” and the two men hit it off. While Universal did agree to distribute the movie, Berg had to raise financing overseas, which wasn’t hard with this ensemble. They filmed with constantly moving Red cameras in the mountains of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, standing in for the craggy cliffs of Afghanistan.
The movie was a bitch to shoot–the four actors playing marooned SEALs on a remote mountain without radio contact go tumbling down rocky cliffs in order to escape a relentless Taliban assault. But it’s nothing like what the actual soldiers went through, reminded Wahlberg at the AFI Q & A, where he slammed actors for comparing their jobs to the military–which many of us took to mean Tom Cruise’s recent virally reported statements about filming being as tough as fighting in Afghanistan. “For us to talk about what we went through or not is fake and false compared to what these guys went through,” said Wahlberg. “Seeing the movie again tonight reminded me of what Marcus went through… For someone to say that my job is as difficult as somebody in the military–how fucking dare you?” (Universal is backtracking, stating that Wahlberg was not referring to Cruise and was unaware of his comments.)
Berg made it clear–and burly Luttrell attested–that the film is as authentic as it could possibly be. Consultants were on hand to verify and insist on accuracy. Luttrell was wary of Hollywood; he didn’t want to see his character fall for a village girl, he said. Berg and his actors came through. The movie reminds me of “Restrepo,” Sebastian Junger (who was consulted on the film) and the late Tim Hetherington’s extraordinary documentary portrait of one troop’s experience in Afghanistan. “Lone Survivor” reminds us of the sacrifices these well-trained and brave soldiers and their families make on our behalf in an unforgiving part of the world.
The filmmakers deserve serious kudos all around. Will Oscar voters agree? It’s a competitive year. The directing, photography, editing and stunts are tops, as is Berg’s rigorous and lean screenplay. He went to Iraq to observe up close before finishing the script. Critics should help turn this into a must-see. It’s getting a qualifying run on December 27 before opening wide in January.
The recent vogue for extreme solitary survival tales — Life
of Pi, All Is Lost, Gravity — continues with another significant entry in Lone
Survivor. A very intense, close-up visualization of the best-selling memoir
about a botched Navy SEALs raid in Afghanistan written by the only man who
lived to tell the tale, Marcus Luttrell, Peter Berg’s film rates comparisons to
Black Hawk Down as an unflinching account of a U.S. military operation in the
Middle East gone very wrong. The film is concerned only with what directly
confronts the characters — and, by extension, the audience — at any given
moment. But even without any discernable political tilt in the point of view,
other than for a clear enthusiasm for gung ho manliness, no spectator will be
able to avoid pondering the question: Is such sacrifice worth it?
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.
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.
Your average rock, tree, or branch will never appear
harmless after “Lone Survivor.” With its depiction of warfare in Afghanistan
moved to the unlikely setting of evergreens and jagged cliffs, the most
horrific moments of director Peter Berg’s drama come from a body in free
fall—and its eventual landing upon each. Never mind the fact that surrounding
Taliban forces rain gunfire and RPGs down upon four injured American soldiers
out on a recon mission; nature is the true enemy, and the extent of its cruelty
is explored to the fullest over the course of the film’s harrowing two hours.