Director Peter Berg (previously, Friday Night Lights) fumbles through the film’s exposition, hitting familiar notes with the enthusiasm of a patient ticking boxes on a medical form. A soldier sends a trite, sentimental email to his wife, and the camera lingers on her photo. We watch two men race each other across the base, before they joke (a little too long) about just what sort of embarrassing haircut the loser will now receive. A rookie Navy SEAL struggles to get along with the old boys, but really, they love him like a brother, and they’re just giving him a hard time. If they’d only thrown in a bearded mentor and a precocious child, we’d have checked off every cliché in Hollywood. Throughout all this nonsense, Mark Wahlberg plays SEAL Marcus Luttrell about as serviceably as you’d expect, grunting here and grinning there, biding his time until the film’s official mission. Like CBS, Best Western Hotels, and Dominoes Pizza, he’s consistent, if uninspiring.
About midway through Lone Survivor, Luttrell wakes from a nap in the Afghan hillside, and—as if roused to action by its star—so does the film itself. Formulaic conversation turns to precise, tactical discussion, and a just-happy-to-be-there camera begins cutting with purpose. As our intrepid foursome encounter wave upon wave of Taliban soldiers, we zoom through the SEALs’ tense debates, freeze in moments of eerie quiet, then fly among trees and down rocky cliff faces, all while the four SEALs sprint, crawl, and stagger to survive.
The 30-odd-minute scene is everything you'd want from modern cinema: poetic, precise, perfectly paced. Instead of exhausting viewers with constant combat, Berg stalls the action strategically, allowing us to recharge for each new wave of pandemonium. We watch the SEALs with growing fascination and horror, their robot-like instincts quarreling with their very human tendencies toward pain, determination, and despair. Forced to make impossible decisions, each soldier finally displays the individual character missing from his on-base persona. In short, the based-on-a-true-story film finally becomes believable.
Yes, Lone Survivor might over-dramatize a few deaths (both Taliban and American) but for the most part, the film earns these indulgences, building toward each with old-fashioned cinematic suspense. By the time the primary action sequence ends, you’ll be more solemn than skeptical, more engaged than exhausted.
It’s just too bad Lone Survivor can’t maintain this mid-movie high. The film coasts along for awhile, riding the momentum of its fantastic firefight, before it slows to a saunter, grasping once again for the predictable tropes of war films and action titles. In a pre-credits blip, the film features real-life photographs of the fallen SEALs, providing one last snatch of genuine emotion. It’s deeply affecting—a moment that might make you think of what the movie could have been from its lumbering start to humdrum finish. Oh well: at least we have that one scene.