Peter Berg is that rare breed of filmmaker whose wild inconsistency makes him an oddly intriguing – and perhaps marketable – director, kind of like Antoine Fuqua. Just as likely to make a memorable, inspiring, character-driven picture (2004’s “Friday Night Lights”) as he is to drop a dreadfully vapid, big budget clunker (2012’s “Battleship”), Berg’s style seems to vacillate between that of Michael Mann and Michael Bay – though I’d equate him more to the former, case in point being the divisive Middle East set (and Mann produced) anti-terrorism flick “The Kingdom”, which is where I thought he’d really found his rhythm. His new film “Lone Survivor”, which documents in vivid detail the 2005 botched extraction of a high-ranking Taliban leader in Afghanistan by Navy SEALs, is a combination of both.
While not the choppy mess it might have been had the project fallen into Bay’s hands (to be fair, the “Transformers” director probably would have done a better job with Berg’s ill-conceived Hasbro board game adaptation), it’s also not the visceral experience that a more sapient filmmaker like Mann might have given us. This is a marginally above-average war film, and Berg clearly means to engage us on a deeper emotional level, which is where he often runs into trouble. “Lone Survivor” follows the factual account of Marcus Luttrell, who was the only surviving member of an extraction effort during Operation Red Wings, in which several Navy SEALs and Army personnel lost their lives (the film is based on the book by Luttrell and novelist Patrick Robinson). Berg certainly pays tribute to these men and their families, and it makes for a more engrossing, distressing experience than if it had been hatched from someone’s imagination. The material, however, is treated like a typical Hollywood action flick; the character development feels forced, as does some of the dialogue, and it detracts greatly from the film’s intended impact.
Mark Wahlberg plays Luttrell in the film, who, along with the three other members of SEAL Team Ten – Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson (Ben Foster, who gives a stand-out performance here) – gets pinned down in the mountains by an overwhelming Taliban force after an encounter with three Afghan civilians compromises their mission to capture target Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami). With a tenuous radio signal and a false mountain peak leaving them in a vulnerable position, the team quickly find themselves in a brutal firefight, and eventually dire circumstances.
As with Ridley Scott’s superior “Black Hawk Down” (with which this film shares Eric Bana, who plays their commanding officer), we know vaguely how it’s going to turn out. Though it doesn’t make Luttrell’s story any less compelling, the film is sometimes tedious where it should be intense. Of course, it would be impossible to recreate what Luttrell and his team actually went through, but “Lone Survivor” ends up being a casualty of Berg’s visual style. During the action sequences, which make up the second half of the film, his direction, coupled with Colby Parker, Jr’s editing, is often confusing; it appears to be shot at arbitrary angles, making our perspective a constant issue. Even though the film is extremely graphic, it’s often tough to figure out who’s where, who’s shooting and who’s getting shot. There are more than a few very well choreographed sequences, to be certain – one unsettling close-up of a team member after receiving his final, fatal bullet is particularly disturbing, and there’s a spectacular-looking helicopter crash – but much of the time, “Lone Survivor” looks like a run-of-the-mill Schwarzenegger movie from the ’80s. Not necessarily a bad thing, just not what we’d expect from a contemporary war film in which realism is the primary aim.