One of the more unappreciated directors around for me is Peter Berg. Berg is a director who has been labeled of late a “studio director”, a person who directs largely uninspired big studio blockbuster pictures. Its hard to really deny that, since his last two films were the mediocre Hancock and the laughably bad Battleship. Battleship especially put him in a bad spot, with a lot people losing respect for him as a director. For me, I have always been a fan of Berg’s even through his bad projects.
Even with some blemishes on his resume, Berg has been a part of some great products. Berg did a great job directing the old-school action flick The Rundown, the insanely underrated war film The Kingdom, and one of the best football movies ever with Friday Night Lights. Perhaps the best project Berg has been apart of is Friday Night Lights, which he created and was the showrunner for. To me, Friday Night Lights is the best drama that has ever been on cable, and for that I will always give Berg the benefit of the doubt. Berg’s latest film was actually his passion project, Lone Survivor. Here, Berg gives his best, and makes perhaps his best film yet.
Lone Survivor follows the failed mission of “Operation Red Wings”, which tasked four SEAL team members to take down Taliban leader Ahmad Shad.
As I mentioned, Peter Berg really outdoes himself here, with by and large his best directorial effort yet. This project has always been a passion project of his, having done Battleship just to get the money and studio to produce and make this film. Honestly, his directorial efforts should at least be considered for a Best Director nomination at the Oscars, which will likely not happen.
As far as aesthetics, there is a great deal to be impressed by. Berg and the production team behind the film really nail the larger than life scale of the SEALS, with all the high-tech gear and big helicopters. Berg and his long-time cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler do a fantastic job with the shots in the film. The film’s look is very grand; from the towering mountains to the cramped forest, each shot has a sense of beauty. Accompanying the visuals is an Explosions in the Sky score, which fits the movie quite well throughout.
Capturing wartime action has had mixed results. Some films like Black Hawk Down do a fantastic job of it, others like Pearl Harbor do an awful job. Lone Survivor may feature some of the best wartime action yet, packed full of realism and harrowing moments.
The action in Lone Survivor is captured with style, having a mix between shaky camera, handled cameras, and just wide shots, but each of these three techniques feel cohesive in these set-pieces. There is a controlled confusing nature of these scenes that helps the scenes out a great deal as well. The action is captured well, but there is still a feeling of unawareness to what is going on with the whole battle, which felt very real to war.
This is where the sound design of the film really takes over. Each bullet, each fall, and each person shot, has a very real hardness to it, that very much feels authentic. It’s hard to count the amount of times I cringed during these scenes, just due to how hard these bullets hit. Audiences would be hard pressed to find a movie that is benefited more by its sound. Add that with very realistic looking blood, and it makes these scenes at times very hard to watch.
That is perhaps where Lone Survivor succeeds the most and why it works so well; the action really is horrifying to watch. Berg does not make the action gratuitous or entertaining, it’s quite realistic and very much horrifying. To see all involved in the action scrambling around just to survive any way possible, while trying to fight with their fellow soldiers, really packs a hard emotional punch. As the death count rises, so does the emotional impact on the audience in these scenes.
Maybe the biggest surprise for me is how good the performances are in the film. For me, when you are doing a war film like this, I usually feel it’s better to have lesser-known actors, so they can really get l0st into their characters more than if they were big A-list talents. However, most of the cast does a good job of that.
Mark Wahlberg may be the only one who doesn’t, but still does a good job. This guy must be getting tired of being the lead of movies where the ensemble cast is leagues better. He kind of has a thankless role, not really getting a lot of room to show emotion or anything, but still gives a good effort. Taylor Kitsch is an actor who, like Peter Berg himself, has been thrown under the bus a lot over the past year, but maybe gives his best performance yet in a film. Kitsch really loses himself in the character, and the way he leads and directs people very much feels genuine.
The standout, though, has to be Ben Foster, who is still one of the most unappreciated actors in the industry. Foster is a powerhouse in the film, displaying a balanced performance. He strikes a great balance between the sense to protect his fellow soldiers, and the real emotional sacrifice he goes through in the film. By the end of the film he is the character I most felt for and was drawn to, for which all praise goes to him. All of the squad, also including Emile Hirsch in a small role, have very good chemistry together, from them bullshitting before battle to the fight itself.
While the performances are quite good, the characterization for these people is quite weak. This is a problem even the best war films struggle with, and is very much apparent here. They makes these characters human and relatable, but they are all very much the same, lacking in different personality traits that would make them their own person. The lack of characterization hurts what could have been a range of great characters.
Perhaps the biggest issue is with the fear of really delving into the political issues of the war itself, and why these soldiers are really fighting. Throughout the film, it seemed like this whole movie really could have been something more if it took a stance, and had a somewhat interesting message to tell. To me, it felt like it was very much building up to be this anti-war film, and then it just kind of gets scared out of it. If more chances could have been taken, the movie could have been even better.
Some small issues with the film; the first half of the film is a bit slow at parts, with most of it basically being procedural. Also, the ending has a tribute to the soldiers involved, which is appropriate for this film, but very much handled in a clumsy, melodramatic way, with blaring music behind it. That ruins what could have been a very nice moment.
Lone Survivor may have some stumbling points, but is a sincere and solid effort by all involved. Peter Berg and company really create one of the better war film’s of recent memory, accompanied by some solid performances and great action setpieces. Check this one out in the theater.
Do a Shot: for the Napoleon Dynamite dance
Take a Drink: for each bullet fired. (Ha, no, don’t do that! – Ed.)
Take a Drink: whenever Mark Wahlberg has a Mark Wahlberg moment.