Peter Berg was so determined to make Lone Survivor he directed Battleship for Universal Pictures in 2012 to help secure funding, and his passion for this project is evident from the opening minutes. Berg begins the film with documentary footage of real-life Navy SEALs undergoing a rigorous and intense training process, learning to withstand extreme pain and being shaped into hardened warriors. A little while later, we see one new recruit reciting a macho SEAL mantra in front of his admiring fellow soldiers: “There ain't nothin' I can't do. No sky too high, no sea too rough, no muff too tough…Never shoot a large calibre man with a small calibre bullet…” In every scene Berg reaffirms that these men are brothers and heroes, and that his film is a tribute.
Lone Survivor is the story of the disastrous Operation Red Wings incursion into Afghanistan in 2005. 19 American soldiers were killed during the course of the mission, with the lone survivor of the title being Marcus Luttrell (played here by Mark Wahlberg), whose book was adapted for the screen by Berg. Luttrell was one of four men deployed as an advance force in a mission to capture or kill the Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, but as they observed their target from a vantage point in the surrounding mountains their position was compromised by a trio of goat herders. After some debate about whether to kill, detain or release the civilians, the soldiers decided to follow the rules of engagement and let them go, retreating from the scene before the alarm was raised.
What followed was an almighty firefight, with Luttrell and his team finding themselves outnumbered and outgunned by a Taliban army. Berg recreates the battle in what feels like real time, with the volume being pumped up to an ear-splitting volume as Berg pitches us right into the crossfire. Berg is a decent director of action and he does well to maintain a sense of coherence here as the four Americans face an onslaught that comes at them from all directions, but it’s hard to admire any of the technique involved when you’re having your senses battered so comprehensively. The other three men are played by Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, but the characters they play are entirely interchangeable (in fact, it’s sometimes hard to tell which one if which). We are given no reason to care about their fate beyond one simple fact – they are American, therefore the good guys, and their assailants are the bad guys. “You can die for your country, I'm gonna live for mine” Foster growls as he lines one up in his sights.
The contrasts drawn between the two sides is stark. As we spend our time with the Americans, we see them talking to their girlfriends at home, joshing with their buddies and conducting themselves at all times with dignity and honour, while their enemy is seen terrorising villagers and beheading a man in front of his family. Each of the Taliban fighters is taken down by a single bullet to the head or chest, while our four American protagonists each suffer numerous wounds and keep on fighting. We see every bullet that tears through American flesh and feel every crunch as the soldiers hurl themselves down a rocky mountain face to escape the gunfire (in a manner that recalls Homer’s trajectory down Springfield Gorge). Berg fetishises their suffering to emphasize their courage and resolve, and when the time comes for them to die, the director ensures it is a glorious death, with each of Luttrell’s three companions exiting in slow-motion and adoring close-up.
Is this how it really happened? Perhaps, but the simplistic nature of Lone Survivor is reductive and the high-octane style Berg employs just wears the viewer down. The film will draw comparisons with Black Hawk Down – a film coincidentally based on an operation that also left 19 soldiers dead – but I found Ridley Scott’s film to be more varied and more cinematically interesting, whereas after 20 minutes of gunplay in Lone Survivor I’d had enough. What are we supposed to take from the film? The fact that war is hell and the men who fight are very brave? Peter Berg may have succeeded in his stated aim to honour these fallen soldiers, but I found little else of value in his orgy of violence. The film is relentless, dispiriting and numbing.