Peter Berg's "Lone Survivor" An Adequate War Pic

Recent years haven’t been kind to writer-director Peter Berg or his “Lone Survivor” leading man Mark Wahlberg. Berg’s 2012 pic, “Battleship,” was a critical and commercial bomb for the ages, while Wahlberg slummed 2013 in dire fare like “Broken City” and “Pain & Gain.” In that light, “Lone Survivor” is a rousing success. It’s a competent, occasionally stirring modern day warfare yarn that wears its heart on its sleeve without delving too far into mawkishness. But despite solid performances from its four leads, it ultimately succumbs to unwieldy plotting and an inflated running time that could have been painlessly mitigated.

Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the film tells the tale of the ill-fated 2005 “Operation Red Wings” that went down in Afghanistan. Mark Wahlberg stars as Luttrell, while the rest of his team is comprised of Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster). The quartet is tasked with locating a Taliban leader in the Afghani wilderness, but their cover is blown soon upon arrival. What follows is an ambitiously staged firefight that mostly unfolds in real time.

At nearly an hour, it’s one of the most enveloping battle sequences ever put to film, but it throws off the screenplay’s equilibrium, dulling the impact of what follows – and the third act of the film is where its substance lies. Berg uses the final 30 minutes to give us an important look at the differences between the Taliban and the masses of peaceful Afghanis, but following such a gory, lengthy battle sequence, nuance is a hard pill to swallow.

Berg’s “The Kingdom” is the better war film – its political subtext is a much more comfortable fit – but that doesn’t negate the high points of “Lone Survivor.” The cast, particularly Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch, give infinitely likable, relatable performances here, while Berg’s screenplay wisely pulls back on the sentimentality once past the set-up. Many of the action beats are stunning, particularly when our four heroes are careening down a mountainside, at the mercy of the rocks and trees that have become their only refuge.

The film’s biggest problem lies with its title. The title is, in fact, a spoiler, but instead of letting us hang, Berg removes all doubt by revealing the ending upfront and then backtracking. While it casts an appropriately bleak pall over the rest of the film, there’s very little suspense to be had in waiting for these men to be picked off one by one. It blunts the impact of their fates, using their demises as a plotting device rather than allowing the story to unfold as it did. Their deaths were not framed in real life, nor should they be on screen.

Nevertheless, the film is quite a recovery from the disaster that was “Battleship,” marking a return to respectability for Peter Berg. Wahlberg doesn’t amaze, but he doesn’t have to, serving as an anchor amidst a hurricane of bullets and shrapnel. But perhaps the biggest revelation of the film is Kitsch, who headlined three flops in 2012 – “John Carter,” “Battleship,” and “Savages” – proving that he can and should have a viable film career going forward. “Lone Survivor” isn’t a classic, but it’s a modestly affecting war pic that artfully pays tribute to some real American heroes – exactly what it sets out to do.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: January 10, 2014
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriter: Peter Berg
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig, Eric Bana
MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language)