As a director, Peter Berg’s output ranges from the sublime
(FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS) to the ridiculous (BATTLESHIP), to the sublimely
ridiculous (THE RUNDOWN) – it’s difficult to know what to expect from him at
the best of times, let alone with a based-in-truth war story with such a high
potentiality for his key weakness as a storyteller: jingoism. Thankfully LONE
SURVIVOR is a long way from that disastrous board game ‘adaptation’ (much closer to 2007's THE KINGDOM), and
although it occasionally paints in heavy shades of gung-ho, Berg manages for
the most part to keep a lid on it.
Based on the book by ex-US Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, it’s the story of his unit’s part in Operation Red Wings. In 2005, Luttrell (here played by Mark Wahlberg) and three other SEALS set out on a mission to kill a Taliban’s high-up, but they soon ran into a problem when they lost communication in the mountains, and were then discovered by civilian farmers. The SEALs couldn’t be sure if they were Taliban sympathisers or not, putting them in a dilemma. Their honorable choice brought down a crushing firefight which dominates the second half of the film - which isn't a spoiler. As you’d discern from the title, we know where this is headed at all times – it’s not a tale of excitement, twists and turns; it’s a painful trudge, alongside Luttrell, to miraculous escape.
Don’t mistake ‘trudge’ for ‘slow’: the action is tense, visceral, and at times seemingly unrelenting – particularly memorable are two punishing sequences of the four falling down a mountain, hitting what feels like every tree and sharp rock on the way down - one can't help but recall the almost identical scene from HOT ROD, only here with the laughs replaced by wincing: it’s a monumental achievement in stunt work.
The performances are solid, despite Wahlberg and his supporting players Taylor Kitsch (yep, BATTLESHIP), Emile Hirsch (INTO THE WILD) and the always excellent Ben Foster (3:10 TO YUMA) being given relatively little to work with. One of Berg’s few stumblings (he also wrote the screenplay) is in his too rushed, broad-stroke characterisation of the four SEALs. The other - more significant – is his tendency not necessarily to depict their sacrifice, pain and death, but to go about it in somewhat clumsy, even tacky ways; the slow motion, the occasional religious painting-esque lighting set-ups, the naff cover of Heroes over the end credits.
For the most part though Berg’s film is, if not a revelation, then a pleasantly restrained surprise – regardless of its relativity to BATTLESHIP.
LONE SURVIVOR is released February 20 in Australia, and February 27 in New Zealand.