One hour of Peter Berg’s "Lone Survivor" is tonally precise, reasonably intelligent and well directed, and the other hour isn’t. The picture is, in essence, a dramatization of Operation Red Wings, a military operation that took place in the summer of 2005 and left 19 Americans dead. Three Navy SEAL scouts were lost on the ground, with the rest perishing in an unsuccessful rescue mission.
Berg’s picture yearns for a realistic depiction of the event. He wants the docu-drama aesthetic of something like "Zero Dark Thirty." But he’s far too invested in making heroes of his subjects to approach the film with comparable emotional detachment. The movie is dedicated to their memory. He reveres them far too much to paint a balanced portrait of the events they endured.
At least he doesn’t make them saints. Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and Ben Foster star as the four scouts. They’re well cast, each playing those bro’d-out characteristics that they’ve come to be known for. Foster, example, is a vicious sociopath, chanting "I am the reaper" while picking off targets. He’s convincing in his willingness to execute unarmed civilians to protect "his boys." (There has always been madness in those eyes.)
Hirsch is playing it smooth, the ladies man dropped in the jungle, making it clear with every eye-twitch and frantic line reading that he’s way too young and in over his head. Kitsch plays it quarterback-cool. Wahlberg is our everyman, the film refraining from detailing his background so he can instead craft a persona around tossing off stunted, attempted-casual dialogue like, "There is poison oak, so watch your cock and balls, because that would suck." They’re united by their dedication to the force, by a pledge that Berg and his film admire unendingly: "Moderation is for cowards."
For much of the film, Berg dramatizes that ethos. His camera watches as the four conduct their business, never stopping to valorize their efforts. He starts on the morning they receive their assignments, detailing their A.M. runs and their breakfast and their planning sessions, and follows them into the jungle, where his camera watches -- with no score and little noise backing it up -- as they cross the terrain, take positions, analyze information, set up their scopes, and go about their assignments with the utmost precision. The detail here is minute.
Then the men are found, and a gunfight occurs. But it’s not a Hollywood gunfight. The men remain calm right up to and throughout the firefight, even as they sense it is about to occur. Berg clearly deferred to his military consultants on the picture, shaving out all moments of grandstanding. Ironically, the pared-down-ness of it all is quite exhilarating. Action cinema is so often focused on chaos, that to see something so tactically based is in of itself a virtue.
Eventually, as it happened during the Operation, men are lost, and stakes are raised. This is where Berg, in kind, heightens his approach, and devalues his movie as a result. There’s this moment where Ben Foster, struggling in hand-to-hand combat with an enemy, breaks himself free, and swoops his rifle off the ground. Berg, for the first time in the film, goes to slow-motion for this moment, and even backs Foster with an emphatic sound effect. Sooner than later, they’re giving eloquent monologues that justify their existence, perfectly timed to occur in between intrusions from the enemy.
Berg idolizes these men, he adores their apolitical dedication, and rightfully so. Yet there’s an extended stretch here where his interest in the men remains disconnected from his personal feelings. For a fair while, the picture is daring enough to be divorced from morality and hero-making. When he’s watching them position themselves, and eat, and bullshit, and train, he’s not editorializing. When he’s filming them as they pick off enemies in slow motion after giving big Hollywood-ized speeches, that’s another story. He betrays his own approach. The film should perhaps not be faulted for its reverence to them, sincere as it is. But it’s surely limited by it.
It’s all best characterized in the way it approaches Ahmed Shaw, his men, and two Afghani villagers who played a part in protecting the titular lone survivor. Shaw is seen early on in the film committing decapitations and other atrocities against innocent villages. The purpose of the scene is neither to enlighten nor to expound, but simply to offset any queasiness audiences might have felt watching four white American soldiers picking off endless faceless "insurgents." The villagers are afforded few details, but are granted the same halo of valor given to the soldiers in the second half of the film. This isn’t a morally or politically offensive approach to such a film, all things considered. But it’s a damn simple one.