There are lots of different ways to make war movies: see the conflict from the top down, or make either a patriotic or anti-war statement, or just blow up lots of stuff so it looks cool.
Writer-director Peter Berg opts for the “band of brothers” mode in “Lone Survivor.” He wants to stay at ground level, in the emotional bond that unites a tough group of Navy SEALs during a mission in Afghanistan.
The film is based on a memoir by Marcus Luttrell, whose 2005 assignment targeting a high-ranking Taliban member went disastrously awry.
Luttrell is played by Mark Wahlberg, who brings his usual regular-guy grit to the role — in fact, the movie takes pains to make his character not a superman, just exactly at the level of the other guys in his group.
Berg can’t seem to get the film started properly; the opening credits consist of documentary footage of grueling SEAL training, and then the film idles for 15 minutes of character-establishing that would’ve seemed corny in a 1940s WWII picture.
Once the mission is under way, things tighten up considerably. Luttrell is dropped near an enemy stronghold, with three fellow SEALS: stoic Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, bouncing back from Berg’s “Battleship” debacle), happily-married patriot Axelson (Ben Foster) and younger radioman Dietz (Emile Hirsch).
Accidentally discovered, the men must debate the right course of action. This is clearly meant to give the movie the appearance of ambiguity regarding the squad’s decision. The way things play out, it seems likelier to inflame audience emotion about the military being stuck with rules of engagement and Geneva Convention guidelines and all that bother.
Chased by the Taliban, the squad puts up a fierce counter-attack. Here, in the middle of the film, is a sequence of sustained tension and bloody terror. The blurriness of vision through viewfinders or the frightening whoosh of flying bullets keeps “Lone Survivor” taut during this section, even though (as the title tells us) it’s going to be a rough go for the U.S. troops.
The main actors convey the intimacy that unites these tight-knit soldiers. Back at the base, the mission commander (Eric Bana) barks orders, some of them apparently mistaken.
Berg has a tendency to overplay the big dramatic moments, although Ben Foster (lately very good in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) keeps his farewell on an even, authentic keel.
Berg’s tribute to these SEALs is heartfelt and these brave men deserve their real-life accolades. Whatever its nods toward the hellishness of combat, this is a pro-war movie in the end, its sheer excitement somehow troubling.
It made me want to see a documentary version of this tragic incident, something without the comfort of music and movie stars.
“Lone Survivor” (two and a half stars)
This sometimes standard, sometimes tension-filled movie tells the true story of a disastrous U.S. mission in Afghanistan in 2005. Mark Wahlberg brings his usual steady presence as a member of a Navy SEAL squad whose assignment goes wrong very quickly, and whose fight to stay alive makes the middle of the film quite exciting — maybe too exciting. With Taylor Kitsch.
Rated: R for violence, language.
Playing: Alderwood 7, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Pacific Place, Sundance, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor.