If the secret to good storytelling is, to paraphrase an old adage, to put characters up a tree and throw rocks at them, then Lone Survivor succeeds admirably. Based on the true story of four US Navy SEALs and an Afghanistan mission gone violently awry, it’s an efficient and intense war film from director Peter Berg, who seems more at home here than he did in the more expensive, mainstream territory of Hancock and Battleship.
Led by Mark Wahlberg’s Marcus Luttrell, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster star as the SEALs, whose attempt to assassinate a Taliban leader from a vantage point on Sawtalo Sar mountain is thwarted by anti-Coalition forces. Outgunned and out of communication with their superiors, the SEALs are locked in a desperate battle against an enemy whose familiarity with the terrain more than matches the Americans’ expensive equipment and military training.
Although heavy on action and light on detailed character development, the quartet of soldiers in Lone Survivor pass the Aliens test – hurriedly sketched in though they are, they’re given enough personality to strike through their anonymous uniforms and coarse facial hair. Casting Wahlberg, Hirsch and Kitsch as handsome and brave warriors may not be too much of a stretch for their abilities, but they ably succeed in making their characters likeable amid all the gunfire. Wahlberg, in particular, is affecting as Luttrell, while Ben Foster is almost unrecognisable as the unfathomably tough sniper Matthew ‘Axe’ Axelson.
In terms of physical performances, on the other hand, Lone Survivor provides its actors with a gruelling showcase for their abilities. Berg pares the story of Operation Red Wings back to its barest essentials, establishing the mid-2000s period and wartime setting in a handful of scenes before abandoning his characters in shale-strewn Afghan hills. From there, the movie unspools as a white-knuckle story of survival, with an unrelenting pace and a brutal use of sound and editing.
If Lone Survivor’s early scenes of topless young men sprinting around an army base have the homoerotic, 80s atmosphere of Top Gun, and some of the scenes of action that follow look a bit like a Call Of Duty sequel (complete with first-person views and copious straight-to-the-head kill shots), then the film’s second half has more in common with the siege terror of John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13. As the bullets run low and the injuries take their toll, the last hints of airbrushed heroism fade away, leaving the characters – and the audience – in a mire of panic and bloodshed.
The use of videogame visual cues may also serve a second, slightly more subtle purpose: Berg establishes the slick, scrubbed-up staples of first-person shooters before showing the brutal effects of combat. Razor-sharp cuts from editor Colby Parker Jr and sound designer Harry Cohen ensure that every bullet, grenade and falling rock hits home with the impact of a sledgehammer.
Berg showed a knack for creating striking action scenes in the 2007 thriller The Kingdom, and he builds on that here, constructing an unbroken set-piece among trees and boulders that is almost agonising in its intensity. The tension is such that it’s easy to overlook the obvious spoiler lurking in the title, or that Berg chooses not to dwell too much on where Lone Survivor fits in the wider context of the war. The film’s not unlike Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down in this regard, in that it ignores the bigger historical picture in favour of a simple story about bravery and survival.
Then again, it’s Lone Survivor’s simplicity that ultimately proves to be its most powerful asset. Told exclusively from the perspective of its four US soldiers, Lone Survivor lacks much in the way of subtlety or dramatic nuance (the enemy being, to a great extent, an identikit collection of guns and robes), but as an exercise in suspense, it’s a success.
In the midst of the grittiness, a funereal cover of David Bowie’s We Could Be Heroes feels like a misstep. But for around two hours, Berg exemplifies that storytelling adage mentioned earlier: he puts his characters in a deadly, even frightening situation, and we feel every stinging blow of the rocks he throws at them.
Lone Survivor is out now in the UK.
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