‘Lone Survivor’: Tough and tougher

December 23, 2013

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Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” opens at the end of the film on a harrowing moment about the title character, then jumps back in time to the beginning of this nerve-wracking story.

But before Berg introduces us to the four central figures in this narrative, he drops in a segment under the credits, documentary footage showing actual Navy SEAL training. It looks brutal because it is: physically and mentally demanding, to the point of what feels like torture. As you watch young men and women wash out of the program – while others hang on for dear life – you wonder what the point is, beyond a little rah-rah for the home team.

But by the end, you understand: If you weren’t tough enough to withstand that training, you’ll never survive the actual work – such as the mission Berg depicts in the film.

Based on a true story, “Lone Survivor” chronicles a 2005 mission in Afghanistan that went horribly wrong. Four SEALs – played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch – are dropped into the mountains, with a plan to take out a Taliban leader.

But things quickly go south: The team first finds that, rather than a small band of Taliban around the leader, he has an army. Then they run across a group of goatherds, who can give away their presence. But they have to make real-time decisions on their own – Kill them? Let them go? – because their communications link is disrupted by the terrain.

Which is also worrisome because that com-link was their escape hatch: If they can’t call for pick-up, they’re sitting ducks for whatever Taliban forces are in the area. Once they decide not to kill the locals they’ve encountered, they’re instantly targets with a posse on their trail.

There’s not a lot of moral gray area in this film (beyond, of course, the whole idea that we should never have been at war at that point in the first place). But this isn’t a movie about how the Bush administration lied us into that conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan or subsequently mishandled virtually every part of it. (There have been several of those – and no one went to see them.)

Instead, it’s about four guys – soldiers on a mission they didn’t choose or originate – just trying to get back to safety after a cascading series of snafus. That’s where the training comes in: These guys take incredible punishment while trying to escape and, somehow, manage to keep going.

It’s not just bullet wounds they’re coping with, though each of them suffers at least a couple and still keep moving. They’re also on the run from fighters who know the countryside – and they’re moving blindly toward someplace where their radio might actually work to bring them a rescue.

Which means that, on more than one occasion, they’re forced to the edge of a cliff – and then over it. Berg captures this in grunting, bone-jarring similitude; you keep wondering how these guys are able to get up and walk – or limp – away from these falls. But, again, it’s about the training, the will to live dominating pain that would debilitate those with lesser stuff.

Some have already criticized this as war porn, glorifying Americans on an unjust mission. But while the military may have cooperated in the telling of this story, this is hardly a recruiting tool. Instead, it’s a frighteningly real look at just what war means to the men who are fighting it.

The central four are all strong performers who handle these roles capably and with physical acumen. There’s not a lot of acting to be done, as much as reacting. Still, this is about men fighting their own fear and buoying the spirits of their comrades in an impossible situation.

The film is called “Lone Survivor” and the very first scene shows you who that is. (So will the billing, I’d imagine.) But “Lone Survivor” is still a gripping tale of men pushed to the extreme and rising to the occasion, right up to the moment they no longer can.

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