Director: Peter Berg
“War is war and hell is hell, and of the two, war is a lot worse…There are no innocent bystanders in hell, but war is chock full of them: little kids, cripples, old ladies.” Despite being a comedy series, "M*A*S*H" had moments of startling insight; this is one of them, and walking out of “Lone Survivor,” I find it very difficult to disagree with that point.
Peter Berg’s newest project—based off Marcus Lutrell’s memoir on failed 2005 Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan—is a lean combat film, offering no sympathy for the squeamish and no respite from the horrors witnessed by Marcus (played by Mark Wahlberg). Some have been quick to call the film “graphic,” and I could not disagree more. For example, “Zero Dark Thirty” is graphic. The director Kathryn Bigelow purposefully makes scenes tense and uncomfortable for the audience, trying to pull on every nerve possible and stir those watching. Berg’s approach can be better described as uncompromising. He doesn’t try to create any unneeded emotions or build drama that isn’t being presented by the story itself, and the result is a rawboned movie putting on the full display the horrors of war and honoring the soldiers portrayed.
Superfluous suspense and melodrama end with the opening credits. The first sequence uses real, unscripted training footage to show just how wild these men are, and despite their rigorous preparation, everyone in the theater knows that only one man is walking away from this operation alive. Once the film formally begins, we are introduced to the soldiers’ concerns, the boyish humor that keeps them smiling between operations and their beloved wives at home. There are no mushy scenes or heavy-handed depictions of star-crossed lovers separated by war. So when Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) is being executed, and he reaches for a sheet of swatches his wife sent him so he could be involved in redecorating his home, the entire theater is left breathless. You know those swatches are his everything, his entire reason for fighting and killing, and you feel it.
The film isn’t about lowbrow entertainment using military combat as an engine for action, but neither is it trying to make a political statement. Berg stays with what feels right, weaving a story about survival and the realities of warfare, ultimately creating one of the most memorable combat-based war films in recent history. Consequently, the images and the script are hard to forget. For instance, a few minutes before his execution, Dietz is babbling, “Momma never told me—momma never told me they’d be so fast,” as he stares at the bloody nubs that used to be his pinky and ring fingers. Michael Murphy and Matt Axelson (Taylor Kitsch and Ben Foster, respectively) also have some amazing moments that in a lesser film would come off as corny and try-hard but instead manage to carry weight and strike the right chord.
I had the good fortune of seeing the film in D.C. with a room full of servicemen and women. There was no whooping, no proud fists thrust in the air. They watched with the same stoicism that Marcus utilizes when facing terrifying and unfathomable obstacles in order to survive. The only visible reaction came after the shocking ending—that will surprise any who haven’t read the memoir already—when the photographs of the 18 men who lost their lives were presented. The audience stood and clapped, otherwise silent with neither pride nor shame, only that same stoic resolve to remember the fallen and to honor their brothers.