War is still hell

Spoiler alert: there’s only one survivor in Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor is like one of those “Support Our Troops” stickers you see pasted on the back of cars. It’s easy to agree (and I do) with the sentiment: men and women who serve in the military should be treated with respect and dignity both on and off the battlefield.

But that’s not what they really mean. Instead they’re like badges signalling support for the mess that was Iraq/Afghanistan. Peter Berg ( Friday Night Lights ) can’t quite escape that contradiction with his new film. To his credit however he comes close. Lone Survivor could have been jingoistic claptrap but Berg goes for something more reasoned and poetic. It’s like his own treatise on heroism and whether you agree with it or not it’s powerful. (The opening credits show real footage of Navy SEALS in training; it looks beyond arduous and terrifying.) War might be occasionally loads of fun (guns adventure rampant bro behaviour) but it’s also hell.

The film is based on the massive tactical failure “Operation Red Wings.” The 2005 mission sent a squad of Navy SEALS deep into the Afghanistan wilds where they were tasked with capturing (or killing) Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. The four members of the SEAL squad are like a mini Band of Brothers . There’s the laid-back Texan Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) sensitive and serious Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) scrappy youngster Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and no-nonsense Matt “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster). The opening scenes (set to swelling majestic music by Explosions in the Sky) show the men racing each other around the military base seeking romantic advice (there are always war brides to pine over) and just generally being the best of buddies. Well brothers really: there’s nothing like the ever-present fear of death to really bring people together.

The mission feels cursed from the get-go. They lose radio contact with the base effectively stranding them in the middle of nowhere. After hiking across miles of slippery shale they find Shahd terrorizing villagers. (The film establishes him as a head-chopping baddie earlier in the film.) Things suddenly look a bit better: sure there are a lot more armed Taliban soldiers than they thought but at least the target is there ready for the killin’. They bury themselves in the underbrush to catch some sleep before the assault.

Unfortunately an old man and a couple of kids haphazardly stumble across the slumbering soldiers. (Pesky goat herders!) They have two choices: kill or be killed. If they murder the three in cold blood they’ll be safe (and can continue the mission) but they’ll be well murderers. If they let them go the three will almost certainly alert the Taliban to their presence. Not all the men want to take the moral high ground but they do and release the prisoners.

Does the Taliban come after the SEALS? You betcha! The long middle of the film is a harrowing survival/shootout sequence and Berg does an amazingly terrifying job at bringing audiences close to experiencing the fear and confusion of a real firefight. Bullets split the trees and blood blinds the eyes. Now in full retreat the men race across the bush and throw themselves down hills in the hope they’ll outrun their pursuers. More bullets clip fingers and toes; bones are broken and crushed. With a movie called Lone Survivor don’t expect a happy ending.

The trailer for Lone Survivor does a huge disservice to the film making it look like another generic war-happy action movie. It’s too bad because Berg has crafted that rarest of breeds: a war film that’s exciting raw and meditative. At its best think of the aesthetics of Friday Night Lights crossed with Rambo . (And um better than that.) I think Zero Dark Thirty killed the nascent Iraq War genre — odd considering how close we still are to that conflict. Hopefully audiences haven’t gotten war movie fatigue yet — they’ll miss one of the best sleepers of the year.

LONE SURVIVOR directed by Peter Berg starring Mark Wahlberg Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch now playing.