Like Peter Berg’s prior The Kingdom, which pictured a fantasy F.B.I. intervention in Saudi Arabia, Lone Survivor pretends to dabble in a frothy moral ambiguity, swiftly betraying its true aims with trigger-happy jingoism. Recreating a botched operation in Afghanistan that ultimately led to the deaths of 19 Navy SEALS, the film seeks to be unbearable in its violence, never equivocating about the necessity of martyrdom in military culture. Much in the vein of Black Hawk Down, a film from which Berg unmistakably took encouragement, a roster of young white A-listers are given starring roles in the cadre, with the implicit knowledge (see: title) that they won’t make it to the movie’s end. Yet despite the foreknowledge of a bloodbath, the heavy emphasis on sacrifice, there can be no mistaking it for an antiwar film.
The team leader is the rogueish Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), who finds himself stranded with his squad (Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster) on an arid Afghan cliff. Sent from Bagram Air Force Base—under the command of Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen (an especially humorless Eric Bana)—to either kill or capture Taliban commander Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), who Berg introduces decapitating a hapless villager, the guys hit a snag when their hiding place is stumbled upon by a couple of goatherds with a walkie-talkie. Some of the men want to kill the two civilians, one of whom is a teenage boy, but eventually decide, with much vexation, to instead adhere to the Geneva Conventions and set them free. This decision inevitably kicks off a Taliban attack up the mountain, with scores of combatants imprisoning the SEALs among scraggly patches of tree and rock.
Strictly as a piece of action cinema, Berg’s staging of the firefight exudes a strikingly palpable tension: Each of the SEALs is pinned to his own slim area of cover, with bullets ricocheting from every possible direction just off screen. The more cinematographer Tobias A. Schliesser tightens the frame around each man, the more chaotic the editing becomes; the shootout feels fast, seemingly endless, and as such without relief. Eventually the four (all injured) decide to roll down the cliff to eke out a new position; the camera follows each man as he tumbles downward, picking up every last bone-crunching thud, the blood-covered bodies already resembling corpses free falling in suspended motion.
This is one of a good many moments where Lone Survivor comes off unintentionally hilarious for the way it bathes in its characters’ almost grotesque superhuman strength. Just as Berg’s SEALs dust themselves off (“That sucked!” says Foster’s soldier), the film seems confident that we’re ready to watch them suffer some more, and so they roll down the hill again. Berg clearly prefers his heroes in combat, making no equivocations about their hardness—after all, in the U.S. military, SEALs are considered the best of the best. Neither does he pretend to be interested in whether or not they should be dropping into Afghanistan in the first place; Bana’s commander does the screenplay a helpful bit of shorthand by pointing to a photo of Shah and commenting “Bad Guy” in an early planning session.
Lone Survivor proofs itself against criticism by hiding behind its protagonists; the physicality of its filmmaking is but a pretext for yet another gargantuan, subliminal recruitment ad. When pogo-sticking from the intense shallow focus of the aforementioned gundown to a lens-flared landscape shot of Kitsch being ripped apart by bullets while practically dangling off a cliff, Schliesser’s vistas are steroidal, operatic, uncannily digital. In moments like these, the goal—to honor the memory of 19 soldiers while detailing their sacrifice as explicitly as possible—reeks of bad faith. The actual Operations Red Wings 1 and 2 were both strategic setbacks for the military, and the body count on the Afghan side (combatant or bystander) is never remotely considered by Berg’s script. But a slideshow epilogue of the real guys at the end (set to a shimmering Peter Gabriel cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes”) maybe speaks the loudest. These men died in the real world so that Luttrell could live and, thus, so that you could pay to watch Mark Wahlberg play him in a movie.