Peter Berg's adoration of the United States Armed Forces was readily apparent before today's release of Lone Survivor. This is the same filmmaker who ended his summer blockbuster adaptation of the board game Battleship by having actual WW2 veterans stave off an invading alien horde via heavy artillery, so his appreciation of the unique familial ecosystem created by those bravely serving is by no means surprising. What does prove surprising is that Lone Survivor only really comes to life when highlighting the absolutely nightmarish qualities of serving, despite Berg's best efforts. The closing montages (composed of still images and video of real Navy SEALs undergoing training and of those real-life subjects portrayed in the film) make no secret of Berg's intentions to dramatize the story of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell's harrowing journey (exactly how harrowing is kind of spelled out in the title). This is a film meant to lionize the war efforts of our armed forces and celebrate the ultimate sacrifice so many of them are unfortunately tasked with making. And while the core cast does an admirable job of embodying the lives of these soldiers (Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster and Taylor Kitsch make up the four-man squad, and they're all pretty good), it's only when confronted with the ugly reality of their situation that the film begins to gain momentum.
While hiding out, the four soldiers are discovered by a trio of shepherds, including one very young boy. The soldiers then are forced to debate internally whether or not they should abide by the rules of engagement and let these civilians go, even if it's a near-certainty that they'll inform the local Taliban militants, leave them bound in the mountains (which would essentially amount a death sentence) or execute them in order to maintain the op's integrity. This introduces a rare moment of lucidity and humanity into the proceedings, allowing these men a moment to debate the reality of their situation in which their every decision will result in bloodshed. It's a brief intellectual respite before the film engages in what it's truly interested in – a lengthy shootout between our intrepid Navy SEALS and the quickly converging Taliban forces that dominates the majority of the film's running time. Berg's action here is incredibly visceral, but also tonally schizophrenic – alternating between the brutal reality of close-quarters combat in one moment (he remains the master of making an audience feel every bump and bruise of a character's tumble, carrying over from its comedic origins in his previous The Rundown) and succumbing to action movie histrionics next (slow motion hero moments and icky one-liners). The cumulative effect is jarring, as the film attempts to recreate the relentless pacing of a Blackhawk Down but is only able to recreate that level of intensity in fits and starts.
An unfortunate casualty of this focus on lionizing every bullet and drop of blood spilled is that a true moment of heroism is given short narrative thrift; that Luttrell is eventually saved and sheltered by an Afghan villager (unnamed in the film, Mohammed Gulab in reality) who defends Luttrell from the Taliban despite the threat it poses to both himself and his young son. The film spends so much time on the logistics of combat that it loses the opportunity to spotlight this truly selfless act, making it feel like a cinematic footnote (then literally relegating this brave act of defiance to a cinematic footnote in the end credits). Berg's deference to the codes of conduct and powerful brotherhood between those that serve is to be admired, but Lone Survivor is so focused on that aspect of this story that it botches its own opportunity at emotional resonance.