Brutality, tension worth it in viewing Berg’s ‘Lone Survivor’

Movie: Lone Survivor; Director: Peter Berg; Studio: Universal Studios; Rating: R; My finding: 3.5 / 5 stars.

“Lone Survivor,” directed and adapted by Peter Berg based on the book by Marcus Luttrell (played here by Mark Wahlberg), is neither a pro- nor anti-war movie. Instead, it brutally depicts the horrors of being over your head and alone in the most hostile environment possible.

And that’s what war can be, especially for these four Navy SEALs, who like to call themselves “frogmen.” They are on a secret mission to kill Ahmed Shah, a Taliban leader who terrorizes Afghan villagers, and has recently added 20 U.S. Marines to his strings of kills.

The problem for the quartet, though, is that the rocky Afghan mountains, with the state of New Mexico standing in its place as the on-location setting, don’t really allow for much radio traffic. Even insecure satellite phones, circa 2005 when this true story takes place, can’t seem to find a signal in that wide-open sky.

It’s not for lack of trying that Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch of “Into the Wild”) can’t get a signal to radio in their bi-hourly check-ins with the forward command base. He holds his arms up with his antenna when lying prone and secures the antenna to bark on the tree.

But the whole mission was supposed to be an in-and-out assassination by four highly trained SEALs.

Even though Shah is guarded by a “small army” in the little village in the valley, he’s their only target. So, team leader Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch of “John Carter”) tells base that they shouldn’t worry if the team misses a check-in or two since the terrain was expected to give difficulty.

It’s the introduction of three shepherds, an old man and two small boys, that complicates the mission. They’re found out and it looks like the older of the two boys has nothing but hate for the Americans.

And there’s the ethical dilemma.

The four need to figure out if they should kill the shepherds or let them go. The first option would allow them a chance at completing their mission and then heading home, but presents moral troubles to them – not only because it’s against the rules of engagement, but because they don’t want to kill innocents. The second option they feel much more comfortable with morally but they would have to give up their mission as they know the shepherds would inform the Taliban.

Despite Matt Axelson (Ben Foster of “3:10 to Yuma”) pushing for the execution of the hostages, because he cares about his “brothers” rather than risking it by releasing the “future terrorists” who will eagerly tell on them, Murphy says that the group isn’t a democracy and the only option is to let them go.

“Isn’t this how it’s supposed to be,” he asks. “Don’t good things happen to good people?”

Sometimes, but not here, because the final third of the film is as brutal as they come.

Seeing bodies shot, worn, dragged, ripped and broken is as visceral an experience as the infamous brutality showcased in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” But it’s not fetishistic as some may first believe.

Despite all that the men go through, they still serve as a unit. Loss after loss has to be pushed aside to be dealt with later to continue to try to send out a rescue signal, in order for as many “brothers” as possible to get out alive.

Berg is known for filmmaking – other than the terrible “Battleship” – that paints the struggles of the driven and the stubborn. From “Friday Night Lights” to here, there is very little in the way of holding back from showing the struggle.

But what makes the brutality and the tension so worth it, especially in this film, is when he allows moments of slighter and more delicate filmmaking. The

SEALs running in early morning on base with the backlight of the rising sun set to a glorious soundtrack from “Explosions in the Sky” allow you to feel nearly at home with the men early on.

To make brutalist filmmaking worth anything at all, the audience has to know and identify with the characters, and Berg never forgot that.

The opening montage of SEALs training is completely unneeded and should have been cut in favor of the next, brutal scene where we see the Last Survivor hanging on for life before jumping back to three days before.

The training scene was probably included because Berg implanted himself with a SEAL team, like war journalists do, to prepare for a realistic portrayal of their actions. But glorifying the harshness of training distracts from the reality of the already established SEALs.

In the end, though, despite the outcome being given away in the title, you will have suffered with them every step of the way. And then you’ll get to meet the real four men the movie depicts with pictures at the end, set to a beautiful Peter Gabriel cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday’s Arts &?Entertainment section.)