There's a difference between watching a compelling war drama versus a dry reenactment of the events that tells the story without offering an emotional pull or any sense of realism. Peter Berg's latest directorial effort, the Navy SEALs drama LONE SURVIVOR, is no better than a limp retelling that fails to get underneath the surface of the actual story.
It's a real shame, because the inspiration behind the movie--Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell's true story of the failed Operation Red Wings mission of 2005 in Pakistan of which he was the only survivor--sounds like something that could have made a remarkable movie. Luttrell, played by Mark Wahlberg in the film, was one of four Navy SEALs who left their base in Afghanistan to track down an al Qaeda leader believed to be affiliated with the Taliban. Almost immediately upon their arrival, the quartet were attacked by armed forces that surrounded the al Qaeda leader. Luttrell barely made it out alive.
For a movie that has been described as "gritty" and "tense," it does no favors in its agonizingly slow beginning. We see the men (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster) with their entire team, shooting the breeze and dreaming about their lives back home. Though these scenes are set up to establish character, they do little to engross the audience and even less to humanize them. The dialogue is wooden and empty and far too rushed. Berg, who also wrote the screenplay based on Luttrell's book, decided to keep the main focus on the actual attack and not on who the men were behind this fatal day. That's one of his first mistakes. If there's nothing to make us care about the characters, how are we going to care about them when they end up in crisis? That's an instant disconnect.
The acting makes up for the awkward dialogue later in the film as the actors have a little more to work with, though the chemistry between them is still lacking. As the action escalates and the men are ambushed atop a mountain waiting for death, the film becomes more compelling but rides heavily on the action (even duplicating it at times), taking away more potential from the actors. While what happens to these characters during this time is frightening to watch, we still see these four men merely as unfortunate casualties with no individual stories. Foster does as much as he can during Matt Axelson's last fateful moments on screen, as does Kitsch as Michael Murphy. But they both become afterthoughts when the film centers on Luttrell, forcing Wahlberg to carry the film until its end.
The film's third act also becomes muddled as it coasts through the final events of Luttrell's story (he's captured then later protected by a local tribe member). Wahlberg is unable depict all of the emotions Luttrell goes through during this time (fear, agony, despair, vulnerability) without the help of the other actors in the scene. He comes off more as snarky and disgusted at Luttrell's situation than anything else. As a result, more awkward line delivery ensues. It's also worth noting that Luttrell is a 6'5" Texan and Wahlberg is 5'8" with a clearly northern accent, which also contributes to his lack of believability in this role. That said, it would have been nice to see what an actor like Foster or Kitsch could have done with this role.
Save for the arresting middle section of the film, LONE SURVIVOR could have been so much more than it is. Berg chose to highlight the horrors of what happened to these men and forgot about the men themselves. He also introduced themes without exploring any of them, such as what Luttrell's captor sacrificed for him and the complex politics of the war. The film merely touches on its most fascinating theories without digging into any of them, providing more of a Hollywood finish with an unbalanced story. Luttrell's story exemplifies bravery, danger, patriotism and honor. But none of that is captured here. It's frustrating to watch the events of his story become diluted and uncomplicated with lackluster dialogue and a shoddy lead performance. He deserved more.
LONE SURVIVOR is now playing in select theaters, and will open nationwide on January 10th.