‘Lone Survivor’ filled with fine, but distanced, performances

Mark Wahlberg, left, stars in "Lone Survivor."
January 19, 2014

Director Peter Berg’s films are like the frozen dinners of the film world. The package always holds so much promise of fulfillment and satisfaction, but once it's unwrapped, it's oddly flavorless, despite delivering on all the contents it promises.

He's once delivered the goods, with 2004's rousing "Friday Night Lights." But from the not-bad-enough "Very Bad Things" to the not-super-enough superhero flick "Hancock" to the not-thrilling-enough thriller "The Kingdom," he's fallen short of the respective trailers' potential.

And, of course, there's last year's "Battleship," which failed to match all the dramatic intensity of a board game.

Cribbing copiously, stylistically, from Ridley Scott's superlative "Black Hawk Down," with this latest film, Berg heads to the battlefield to tell the true-life tale of some insanely resilient Navy SEALS trapped in a bungled Afghanistan operation. Led by Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg), a squad of young soldiers finds themselves cliffside with little escape. When their mission to kill or capture a Taliban commander is interrupted by a trio of goatherders with a walkie-talkie, they are left with few options: screw the Geneva Conventions and kill all three, or let them go and risk them giving up the team's location.

Deciding the latter (it's revealed in the trailer, so no need for a spoiler alert), they are soon met by hostile fire that sends all four tumbling down the mountain in particularly fetishistic, bone-snapping fashion. If "Saving Private Ryan" brought realism to battle scenes, this takes them to superhuman levels.

The film is based on the memoirs of Lutrell, who (again, no spoiler alert needed since it is the film's title), is the sole member to make it out of the fracas. His SEAL Team 10 was undoubtedly a rough-and-tumble bunch if there ever was one. Berg does manage to bring a level of realism to the militaristic proceedings that pays respectful homage to their legacy.

But when he strays from the battle, "Lone Survivor" feels out of its element and falls into television movie-of-the-week treacle. It sacrifices time that could be devoted to some of the moral ambiguity it plays with rather than on showing us yet another scene of these guys snapping their backs against tree trunks when rolling down the mountain.

It's filled with fine, but distanced, performances (Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch are the band of brothers), yet we don't walk away feeling as though we are any closer to these men despite our being embedded with them. And that chasm is important for viewers in a film such as this.

There's no need to tell us just how tough Navy SEALS are. There's little denial of that fact. What a film like "Lone Survivor" should do is clue us in on how they became, and remain, so. And while it shows us plenty of intense battle scenes, without that additional connection, the characters are all still actors on the screen, and that leaves us hungry for more.

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