By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, and Eric Bana.
I’ve had about as fluctuating of a relationship with war films as I’ve had with movies starring Mark Wahlberg. Platoon and Black Hawk Down were very well made, but sometimes when it comes to watching movies featuring war as its cornerstone, I tend to falter out. Wahlberg had a pretty decent run of films in the mid-2000s (starting with his Oscar nominated turn in The Departed). But recent years, beginning with 2008’s The Happening) have seen his stock slowly start to stammer. And if I have that kind of relationship with those two film commodities, you can imagine how I feel about the direction of Lone Survivor helmer Peter Berg. Sometimes he’s ok (The Rundown, Friday Night Lights). But his tendency to lean on an aesthetic established by Michael Bay has more often than not gotten him in trouble (Battleship). So with all of that working against it, how did I come out of the theater feeling about Lone Survivor? Well, it so happens to be one of the best war films I have ever seen, the best performance Wahlberg’s given in years, and the best display of direction Berg has made his entire career.
Those are bold statements, but Lone Survivor gives enough pieces of evidence to make a case for all of them. First of all, Berg has wisely decided to push away all the booming foley work that came with Battleship and gone more subtle. Oh sure, there are plenty of gun fights and crashing into trees. But Berg has situated the film to make each and every one of these instances matter. The sound isn’t constantly ringing in your ears like it was with Battleship. Berg does a brilliant job of building silent suspense, and in turn paying it off. This time, the loud music and swift cuts brilliantly serve the narrative.
The film tells the true 2005 story of a mission to kill Taliban members that goes horribly wrong. It is a gripping, tension filled piece of filmmaking. Mostly because of the decisions at hand. There are several instances that Berg (who also wrote the script) forces his audience to ask themselves what they would do in each situation the soldiers are in. He knows that each member of his audience will answer in much the same way Wahlberg’s crew does. And then realize that everyone involved would be wrong. It’s a tight rope that Berg walks extremely gracefully.
As far as the acting goes, it is all pulled off nicely. While Wahlberg is front and center in Lone Survivor’s credits, the feeling of brotherhood blankets the entire first half of the film. For this portion, Wahlberg is an almost background character, letting his supporting cast of Kitsch, Hirsch, and Foster take the reins. All of the actors mentioned above have had a stigma of ‘stars of tomorrow’ etched on their chest at one time or another (Kitsch himself was in Battleship and John Carter in the same year), but like a baseball player needs his team to play together in order to win, each of the film’s cast does a nice individual job, with each discrete performance playing into how effective Berg’s built-in drama is.
War films are gritty by nature, which makes watching them and the Hollywood actors portraying the soldiers in them tough for me to watch. I find it difficult to get into a story involving the aesthetic associated with these types of films, so the fact that I cared about all these guys is a feat in the writing & directing job Berg has done. With each view from a scope, glimpse from night vision goggles, or cower from enemy sight, I was right with them. When these guys fall (and they fall A LOT), you ohhh and ahhh and wince like you are there. I have no idea when Berg learned to be this effective at his craft, but the longer these scenes went on, it got more and more impossible to let go of my seat.
When Berg was out promoting Battleship, he swore one of the sole reasons he made it was to honor his now deceased Marine officer father. While that film is rightfully perceived as an artistic and commercial failure, he can hold his head high now. By doing Lone Survivor, Berg has honored his dad and the officers portrayed in the film. Sure, some shifty dialogue in certain places gave hints of his old Battleship self, and scenes involving Wahlberg in a village following his escape leaned toward belaboring the film’s overall structure. But through it all Berg keeps it together. Tense and taut, Lone Survivor is a crowning achievement. And while he is far from deserving the type of end credits tribute he willfully gave the real life officers involved in the mission, he can definitely say he served their memory well. And made a damn fine movie in the proces.