Director Peter Berg's Lone Survivor hits all of the right marks — except for the one that begins with a capital M.
Based on the true story of 2005's failed Operation Red Wings, Lone Survivor centers on four SEALs — Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) — and their mission to capture or kill Taliban commander Ahmad Shah. When the four men encounter a trio of innocent villagers, just miles away from their target, they make the fateful decision to let the bystanders live, leading to deadly results for the entire group.
Lone Survivor is a difficult movie to watch. It's hard enough spending nearly a full hour watching four very likable people get battered, beaten and shot in the mountains of Afghanistan. It's made all the more challenging knowing the material is based on a true story. That point is punctuated by the use of archive footage and photos of the real soldiers behind the story. It's a brutally paced film with equally brutal violence, and not the kind that gets you out of your seat, hooting and hollering.
If anything, Lone Survivor will push you deeper into your seat. The film widens that pit in your stomach as the odds are stacked against Marcus and his fellow soldiers. Berg directs the action masterfully, pausing and slowing down occasionally to ensure the viewers feel the bullets hit the characters, and hear the bones break.
But it's not all about the battle; it's about the men at the heart of the conflict. Lone Survivor's closest cousin in the Berg catalog is probably Friday Night Lights. There's a common feeling between the young men braving the battlefield in Lone Survivor, and the young men braving the football field in Dillon, Texas. There's a bond between these characters, a closeness we're invited to share. There's even music in common: Explosions in the Sky, composers of Friday Night Lights, provide the soundtrack for Lone Survivor; those sound cues immediately conjure up memories of Dillon, and all the emotion that goes with it — a longing for home and a sense of purpose.
In lieu of exploring backstories in great detail, Berg instead shows who Marcus, Michael, Danny and Matthew are through their actions and interactions, both before and during the mission. There's little information about each character available for the audience: Michael wants to buy his wife a horse; Danny's wife is remodeling their home; and Matthew frequently IMs with his girlfriend back home. It's not a lot, but it's all the viewer needs to make a connection with these characters. The actors do the rest.
Taylor Kitsch is particularly powerful as Michael, bringing his Tim Riggins charm and mannerisms to a born leader along the lines of Jason Street. Emile Hirsch goes from tough as nails and all business to soft as butter and all terror with alarming ease, yielding some of the film's most gut-wrenching scenes. Ben Foster does what he does best, playing the part of an expertly trained (but surprisingly soft) killer with little more than a well-aimed glare. All three of these actors turn in some of the finest work of their careers.
Mark Wahlberg is where the movie misfires. Right up front, it's not exactly Wahlberg's fault; there's no doubt he put his all into this role. The amount of training required to become these characters, let alone the real people they're based on, is nothing to be taken lightly. Wahlberg put his heart and soul into playing Luttrell, and it shows on screen.
The problem is, he's Mark Wahlberg: At 42, he plays a 20-something alongside actors in their late 20s and early 30s. There was a time where Wahlberg could pull off such a youthful role without raising any eyebrows, but that time has passed. He sticks out like a sore thumb for much of the film. It smooths out eventually, because of the intense pacing and the direction the story takes, but throughout it all, there's no question Lone Survivor is a Mark Wahlberg movie.
Marcus as a character and Lone Survivor as a whole might have been better served starring an unknown, or at least an actor at the same level of stardom as Kitsch, Hirsch and Foster -- someone recognizable, but not an international movie star. Wahlberg is an international movie star. Thanks to marketing, Wahlberg's marquee name and even the opening scenes, there's no question that Wahlberg will be the one who walks away.
That said, Wahlberg's casting is one of very few missteps, and it's ultimately a conquerable one. (Indeed, there are some other casting issues with the film, between a blink-and-you'll-miss-it, but ultimately distracting, cameo from Berg, and the co-starring turn by Jerry "Turtle from Entourage" Ferrara as a communications officer.) Overall, Lone Survivor accomplishes its mission by telling a grueling story of survival and strength through tremendously talented actors and unflinching battle sequences. Any other issues pale in comparison to what the film gets right.
Now in limited release, Lone Survivor opens nationwide on Friday.