PETER BERG RATCHETS UP THE ACTION TO SELL TRUE STORY
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Writer-director Peter Berg (“The Rundown” and “The Kingdom”) knows a thing or two about framing high-testosterone action sequences. The camera is always right in the middle of the live-action set pieces and he’s astute when it comes to presentation. For lightweight thrills like “The Rundown,” which catapulted Dwayne Johnson to the forefront of the terminating hero game, Berg provides all of the necessary slo-mo money shots of his muscle-bound props in the midst of delivering or sustaining inhuman punishment. He knows these shots define character in these mythic frames. But he’s as attuned to the post-9/11 psyche of his audience, refashioning the outsized explosive drives with quieter moments and humor – in “The Kingdom” – to settle our nerves and grant more relatable catharsis.
All of this is why “Lone Survivor” feels like a misstep, a minor loss of footing, to be fair, but just enough of a slip to damage the intuitive sense of more discerning audiences armed with knowledge of the true story on which the film is based. “Operation Red Wings” was supposed to be a surgically precise mission involving four SEAL Team 10 members, with significant coordinated back-up, seeking to capture or kill Ahmad Shah, a noted Taliban leader. Compromised when the embedded team encountered civilian sheep herders – who they released rather than killing them (which would have gone against UN protocol) – the four-man unit ended up under attack, fighting for their lives against a collection of Taliban warriors familiar with the terrain and with other tactical advantages, but they fought, literally to the last man – Marcus Luttrell – who lived to tell the tale of what happened to his brothers.
Played with reverential understatement by Mark Wahlberg, Luttrell comes across as more of a supporting player in the story. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) pop off the screen. Each man gets more backstory and time to shine before the team gets dropped into the hot zone, which means we care about them prior to the action. We know about their wives or intendeds, their domestic issues, the brotherly affection they have for each other and their devotion to the larger military family around them. We also have a real sense of their moral character, especially when faced with the decision on the mountain with the civilians who they understand will flee and alert the Taliban forces they’ve been charged with engaging.
It is obvious Luttrell’s account of the attack provides key – likely classified – details that ensure we will experience this fire fight as if we were there, in moments we might be better off not knowing about. The promotional trailer for the film capitalizes on this blend of real life and narrative filmmaking, with Luttrell explaining how, as a SEAL team member, you fight to protect the guy next to you moreso than for yourself. In the heat of the moment, in the theater, it is easy to get caught up in the swell of adrenaline and emotion. “Lone Survivor” packs the same thrill and wallop as Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” – although that film and mission was far more complex, bouncing among many more fields of engagement and characters, which increased the tension significantly.
However, once you step away, a few nagging questions emerge. The team ends up separated; Murphy, Dietz and Axelson meet their fates alone, despite all attempts to stay together, to protect one another, and Berg allows us to see their final moments of life, which Luttrell would not have been privy to. The film over-sells the odds against the team, generating Taliban fighters, seemingly by the hundreds, when the actual number might have been no more than 20. Berg didn’t trust we would appreciate the desperation of the very real situation, a tactical miscue that belongs to the multiplex mentality, not the drama of war.