‘Lone Survivor’ Review: Peter Berg’s Latest Is a Major Comeback

By  · Published on January 10th, 2014

Editor’s note: Our review of Lone Survivor originally ran during last year’s AFI Fest, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens tomorrow in wide release.

Director Peter Berg made a massive misstep with 2012’s Battleship. There was a decent ninety-minute popcorn movie buried underneath all the bloat, but worst of all, it had no personality. It didn’t feel like a movie Berg had to make. Not every movie has to be a serious passion project, but when the passion is onscreen, it speaks volumes. That theory is proven well by Berg’s latest film, Lone Survivor, his best film since The Rundown.

The true life story follows, if you haven’t guessed yet, a lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg). You could consider that a spoiler, but the movie opens with the rescue of Luttrell. It’s a questionable creative decision because a good deal of filmgoers will discover Luttrell’s journey with this film, but then it becomes more a matter of how Luttrell got there rather than who survived. Berg goes about introducing Luttrell and his team – Matt Axelson (Ben Foster), Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) – with the standard camaraderie and exposition that’s expected. It’s a fine set-up, but it’s forgotten once the four of them are thrust into battle, where we learn more about them through action.

That action is a part of a failed mission, involving four SEALs ordered to takedown Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. Their mission goes awry when they are found by three villagers in the woods. They face a dilemma: kill the three men, including two young boys, or set them free and put their lives at risk. After a tense argument, Murphy decides to cut them loose. They evacuate the area, but one of the boys runs to tell the Taliban. The team is soon discovered and end up in one long firefight.

There’s a terrific piece of visual foreshadowing that gives you a hint of what to expect from the forthcoming battle. When the kid retreats to his village, we see him miraculously jumping from rock to rock down a steep hill. It’s a striking shot, but more than that, it makes for a telling contrast to Matt Axelson simply tripping over a rock. Luttrell and his team aren’t familiar with the environment in the way the Taliban are. They are in unknown territory, so they’re at a disadvantage from the start, in addition to being astronomically outnumbered.

Minutes before they’re attacked, Berg employs every twig snap possible to build tension – and he then goes on to somehow sustain that tension through exhausting set pieces. The film’s pacing never lets up, giving the audience and the film sparse breathing room. A large portion of Lone Survivor’s running time is made up of these set pieces, and narratively, it’s a gamble that pays off. Most war pictures would have pitstops for these characters, to let us know where their head is at, how they’re feeling, etc. Lone Survivor doesn’t need a minute of that. Ultimately that script choice produces a simplistic result – which will dissatisfy some viewers – but it works in the movie’s favor.

Because of that, Lone Survivor easily could’ve turned into nothing more than a video game on film. The Taliban we see our heroes fight are more of machines than actual people. We don’t see any fear or human emotion beyond hatred from them. On the one hand, it’s refreshing the script mainly keeps us with these four characters rather than always cutting away to bystanders, but since all we’re seeing are evil grimaces from their enemies, it’s a slippery slope having four fully-realized characters shooting at ‘bots.

Without the humanity from our leads, this would’ve been little more than a live-action take on Call of Duty. All four actors standout in their own ways, but it’s Ben Foster and Mark Wahlberg, in particular, who leave a lasting impression. Wahlberg has always been an actor who’s only as good his script. When he has the right material and the right director, he does interesting work. Thankfully that’s the case with Lone Survivor, because Wahlberg gives his most naturalistic performance to date. Any tics or ideas you associate with Wahlberg are nowhere to be found with his portrayal of Luttrell. It’s in the moment kind of acting, nothing showy or false. Wahlberg has proven his true level of range this year with Pain & Gain and Lone Survivor. Both performances are from other planets, but they are completely successful at what they’re aiming for.

Wahlberg heightens the already considerable amount of immediacy Berg brings to the film. Lone Survivor is a visceral movie, with every punch, shot, and explosion conveyed with great technical skill. Peter Berg may never be able to top of the sheer popcorn thrill of The Rundown, but he comes close with Lone Survivor. This is an exceptional theatrical experience.

The Upside: A major comeback for Berg, Wahlberg’s best performance since I Heart Huckabees, evocative camerawork, a sense of geography amongst the chaos, Steve Jablonsky now has three memorable scores under his belt this year.

The Downside: The set up is a little too routine; Jerry Ferrara is a slight distraction; considering the lyric “just for one day,” “Heroes” is an odd song choice for the end.

On The Side: Peter Berg had hoped to make Lone Survivor before Battleship, but Universal persisted for the latter.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.