It was only nine years ago that Marcus Luttrell and three other Navy SEALs found themselves in the Afghan mountains, cut off from air support and in desperate need of rescue from a Taliban army that outnumbered them five to one. It would have been a risk for any director to fictionalise the story. But Peter Berg, the man behind Hancock and Friday Night Lights, has stepped up to the challenge, and the result, Lone Survivor, is an astonishing piece of filmmaking.
Mark Wahlberg plays Luttrell, a fierce but compassionate sniper and medic who, along with three comrades portrayed by Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster, finds himself in a kill-or-be-killed situation. The decision to show mercy to a group of seemingly harmless Afghan villagers who stumble upon their position backfires when it transpires they are Taliban scouts.
Few situations build suspense like a group of soldiers in a war zone with deployment imminent, and Berg uses this to his advantage. While the fraternity wait at the military base, they talk home renovations and Anchorman, and send emails to their wives and girlfriends. This builds tension in the lead-up to the explosive second half: an hour-long fire-fight that pushes the SEALs to their limits.
It’s an immersive experience. Point-of-view shots and hand-held camerawork hammer in the desperation and confusion of the SEALs’ situation.
By the time the four are driven from their position of power on top of the mountain to the bottom, they have sustained horrific injuries shown in graphic focus – it’s almost too much to bear. The camera slows down after the battle, with the purpose of highlighting the tenderness shown towards Lutrell by an Afghan father and son who swear to protect him from the Taliban in accordance with the Pashtunwali code. A few light-hearted scenes provide great contrast as the Afghan child offers respite from the blood and gore of the previous hour. The villagers’ kindness and defiance of the Taliban reinforces the theme of brotherhood that is so crucial to this film.
As touching as the portrayal of male camaraderie is, the unbridled masculinity sometimes errs towards the problematic. Although Lone Survivor is the product of a maturing director at his finest to date, unlike Sam Mendes in Jarhead, in which the mundanity of war hits home, Berg makes a sad error in shying away from the politics of conflict. Like many soldiers, the men are indifferent to the reasons behind their deployment. They fight only for each other and for the memory of fallen comrades.
This serves as an easy way out for filmmakers who don’t want to examine the reality of war in Afghanistan. Here, war is celebrated for the sake of its heroes and that is a very dangerous thing to do. While viewers will come out of theatres in awe of the cinematography and the bravery of these men, a more powerful film would have had them talking and questioning, too.
Lone Survivor is showing at Legend and Cineplex.