Peter Berg hasn’t made a good film since 1998 with his groundbreaking, twisted, and dementedly hilarious “Very Bad Things”. Since then he has gone on to direct quite a few flops starting with 2003’s “The Rundown”, then 2008’s “Hancock”, only to hit rock bottom when he directed 2012’s “Battleship”. Which at that point I almost dismissed him from my directors whose movies I’d watch list. He seems to be like a not as well known, watered down Michael Bay, strictly in terms of the kinds of films that he usually makes. Big budget Hollywood popcorn fare summer movies. Which to me is about as low as any serious director can go. That’s why I was slightly skeptical going into this one. As Berg hasn’t done a really good film in fifteen years. That and I remember seeing it advertised at one of my local theater conglomerate chains as I passed by when it had just come out. The friend who I was with at the time asked me if I wanted to go to see it. I quickly told him “Nah I think I’ll pass. It’s got Mark Wahlberg”. Anybody who knows me well enough knows how I feel about Wahlberg. He’s a Hollywood puppet (see “Transformers 4” for further proof). Let’s say I’m usually pretty disappointed with the roles he chooses. Though after hearing from a couple of friends of mine that it was actually good, and in one case great. I figured why the hell not. After all how bad could it be?
Based on a true story. “Lone Survivor” starts out by showing us an opening montage of different units within the military and the rigorous training that they go through in order to become soldiers. Soon after, we flash forward to a injured Mark Whalberg, known as Luttrel, as he’s being shipped off in a helicopter. Jumping back 3 years, we meet a rag tag group of soliders played by Wahlberg (Luttrel), Emile Hirsch (Dietz), Ben Foster (Axe), Taylor Kitsch (Murphy – who I could have sworn was Josh Hartnett until I sifted through the cast on my phone), and finally Eric Bana (Commander Kristensen). After some setting up of the characters and giving the viewer some background into who they are as people, they’re given their objective – the killing of a Taliban leader. They then very strategically plan their mission. Only to be lifted up in helicopters to head out and be dropped off in the Afghan Mountains. After some milling about in the mountainside they are exposed and have to capture an old man and 2 kids. They have to make a decision involving the Rules of Engagement and depending on which way they decide, their mission could potentially become very compromised. They ultimately wind up making a moral decision and then retreat back up into the mountains. Then about halfway in to the film, they see their first taste of action and the hunters become the hunted. Which sets the wheels in motion for the second half of the film.
There are a lot of strong elements that I liked about the film and just a couple of not so strong ones. First things first, hats off to Peter Berg. He takes a much smaller film than from what he’s used to and somehow makes it feel bigger. While also making it look artistic unlike his other commercial Blockbuster fare that he’s been doing. His grandeur style really works well here. It’s shot impeccably with some very nice, sweeping cinematography. He gets the camera right in there with each of the soldiers using extreme close up shots that are both intimate and personal, and allow the viewer to feel like they’re in on the proceedings. Along with this, he does a great job at capturing that “band of brothers” feel and making you really care for each of the characters. Once the second half starts and things really start to get going he begins shooting in a more hyper-kinetic style which gives the action a sense of immediacy. Which I personally haven’t seen done since Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (2008). It also has a great score, one that sounded like it was done by the post-rock inspirational group Explosions in the Sky. Adding rich textural guitar tones which I thought lent itself well in heightening the drama. As for each of the actors, they all do serviceable enough jobs in the roles they are given. Ben Foster, at least for me, stood out just a notch above the rest. The not so strong elements, for me, was that I felt like it got a little too caught up in itself in the last quarter/30 minutes. The way in which the turn of events unfold seemed slightly implausible. Also throughout, and particularly towards the end, there seemed to be this underlying American patriotism that comes across as a bit contrived and cliched. Even more, when the credits finally do roll they add in this poetic device to try and pull at the audience’s heartstrings. Very much like last year’s film by Paul Greengrass “Captain Phillips” of which I drew quite a few comparisons to. So while I really, really liked the first 3/4’s. The last quarter just didn’t hold up as well as I was hoping it would. But I have to give credit where credit is due with this one. It’s is a well shot action-packed thrill ride that has quite a bit of heart. So for Berg’s excellent direction and a great story with believable characters that I was both engaged and moved by. I would recommend this to just about anyone. I’m glad I wound up watching it in the end. Because after all, I almost skipped it entirely. Which would have been a mistake on my part.