Lone Survivor, an explosive passion project from writer-director Peter Berg, takes an unrelentingly gruesome look at Operation Red Wings, the failed 2005 mission in Afghanistan that claimed the lives of 19 American soldiers.
As autopsies and firsthand witness accounts have revealed, three of the dead were Navy SEALs killed in an ambush. The other 16 died when a Taliban RPG struck the helicopter trying to rescue the SEALs and sent it crashing into cliffs.
Most of the movie centers on the four SEALs dropped into hostile territory, and how an unfortunate civilian encounter and communications problems led to a massive gunbattle with insurmountable odds.
In a performance that stands among his best, Mark Wahlberg plays Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL who co-wrote the book this movie is based upon (the real Luttrell has a cameo early in the film and acted as a consultant). Luttrell and fellow SEALs Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) were performing reconnaissance for a mission meant to capture or kill a notorious Taliban leader when a trio of goat herders stumbled upon their camp.
In a powerfully acted scene, the four men debate whether they should let these prisoners go or "terminate the compromise." Their decision ultimately leads to a skirmish in which they are far outnumbered.
This is where Berg and his stunt and effects crew really go to work. Aided in part by Greg Nicotero, who does the makeup effects for The Walking Dead, Berg shows injury after injury as a true horror show. When the actors take hits in this movie, Berg and the performers make it all look and sound very real and extremely painful.
This is especially true during two sequences where the SEALs must evade bullets by jumping off cliffs. These plummets feature stuntmen crashing into rocks and trees with a ferocity that looks positively deadly. Berg injects edits of the actual actors falling as well, making the progression down the cliff seamless.
There's a story circulating (told by both Wahlberg and Berg) that the first stuntman to leap off a cliff for Lone Survivor broke a bunch of ribs, punctured his lung and had to be airlifted off the set. When you see how jarringly realistic this movie is in its depiction of the tortures these men went through, you'll be shocked that the stunt guy's injuries weren't worse.
The last act of the film depicts how some sympathetic Afghan villagers found one of the SEALs and sheltered him from Taliban forces until Americans arrived. Don't think this part of the film represents anything near relief, because the SEALs endure plenty of pain and near-death episodes during this stretch as well.
This is one of the best acting ensembles of 2013. Wahlberg leads the group with solid, reliable fury sprinkled with the occasional, and much needed, humorous touch. Kitsch, who headlined the Berg stinker Battleship the same year he starred in the ill-fated John Carter, experiences a complete career resurrection in this movie. He's a strong, sympathetic presence as Murphy.
Hirsch, who was so good in the recent Prince Avalanche and The Motel Life, breaks hearts as Dietz, who loses his drawing hand during battle. Foster is perhaps the most powerful of the bunch as a man who actually gets shot in the head yet keeps on fighting.
Lone Survivor pulverizes the senses, for sure. It also features good actors at the top of their games giving the film the sort of emotional anchor sorely missing in too many military-based movies.
The men depicted in Lone Survivor don't die waving American flags accompanied by "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." They die some of the hardest, loneliest deaths you will ever see in a movie, all the more horrifying because these deaths are steeped in reality.