War As Surreal, Exhilarating Nightmare

The review embargo for Peter Berg‘s Lone Survivor (Universal, 12.27 limited) lifts on Wednesday, 11.13, but Universal had a big “hello, journalists!” screening last night at the TV Academy in Burbank, and apparently it’s okay to “comment” in discreet bursts. Here are three or four. Lone Survival is a blue-chip, this-really-happened war film in the tradition of Pork Chop Hill, Hamburger Hill, We Were Soldiers and particularly Black Hawk Down. It’s an expertly assembled, emotionally jarring wallop — it quickens your pulse and makes you go “whoa…that was fierce and heavy.” It throttles you all to hell and that ain’t hay. My mouth was open with a “good effing God!” look on my face (I wasn’t holding a mirror but trust me) for at least half of the two-hour running time. The two thoughts I had were “God help the guys who went through this nightmare” and “thank God I’m sitting warm and safe and dry in a theatre in Burbank.”

Lone Survivor star Mark Wahlberg, director Peter Berg & interviewer Tina Brown during last night’s q & a.

Is Lone Survivor an awards-season contender? Yes. Certainly. Or it damn well should be, at least. The honest gut-punch aspect plus the high level of craft and unmissable emotion that went into it demand this level of consideration.

Lone Survivor is an unequivocating account (based on Marcus Luttrell‘s “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10“) of a ghastly real-life episode that happened in Afghanistan eight years ago. Saluting this film during award season is, I suppose, some way of giving it up for the nearly 2300 U.S. soldiers who’ve died over there. Even with the knowledge that the 12-year-old Afghanistan conflict has accomplished little except as a symbolic, extremely expensive pushback against the U.S.-hating Islamic radicals.

A story posted last night by Variety‘s Tim Gray carried a headline that said “Lone Survivor Bursts Into Award Race.” I’ll roll with that.

Berg, Littrell, star Mark Wahlberg (who portrays Littrell) and Taylor Kitsch (who plays the late Lt. Michael P. Murphy) were interviewed by ardent Lone Survivor admirer Tina Brown in front of the crowd after the screening. I captured some stills and a couple of video portions on my trusty Canon Elph Powershot 330 HS. And then everyone retired to the lobby for coffee and drinks and mini-cupcakes.

Luttrell was the star of the q & a. Everything he said was plain and frank and unrefined in the best possible sense of that term. He’s calm and articulate and a straight shooter, but he also has that been-to-hell-and-back, worn-to-a-ragged-edge quality that veterans who’ve taken an especially heavy pounding sometimes exude. I love that he brought his golden retriever on stage with him. Dogs should be part of all interviews from here on. They should be allowed into restaurants and bars. They should hang out in offices and shopping malls. (I had a Golden Retriever when I was married.)

In Contention‘s Kris Tapley reported last night that the firefight sequence lasts 33 minutes, but I was looking at my watch all through it and can report that threat-wise things starts to get heavy and intense around the 45- or 50-minute mark and that the fierce activity lasts for nearly an hour if you don’t count a couple of downtime “break” periods lasting two or three or four minutes.

Tapley also wrote that while Lone Survivor is “a sterling monument to modern warfare [and] perhaps the most definitive big-screen account of the war in Afghanistan to date,” it “is not the sort of film to normally register with AMPAS” and that “it may have been a mistake to toss it into the race, where the bar of expectation is sometimes too high and the fight for attention at the box office can be even worse.” In my book an award season film is a creme de la creme effort that deserves to be assessed and saluted alongside other year-end, full-throttle efforts. Tapley isn’t wrong but to hell with AMPAS and their mushy, recessive, comfort-seeking. reality-averse attitudes. Good is good and respect must be paid.

Universal will debut Lone Survivor at AFI Fest on 11.12 and, as previously noted, open it limited on 12.27 before breaking wide in early ’14.

Rohan Chand, the cute Indian kid who costars in Jason Bateman‘s Bad Words (which I saw at last month’s Toronto Film Festival) has a small but significant third-act role.

  • Correcting Jeff

    Huh… absolutely shocked at this. The book was excellent, but that trailer vibe screams: “From the producers of Act of Valor and the Left Behind movies…”

    But when we get FNL/Kingdom Berg instead of Battleship Berg, that’s always a good thing.

    Still, can’t see this getting ANY awards buzz at all. Not the right pedigree.

    COMPLETELY off-topic: Jeff, you’re going to lovvvvve reacting to Mark Harris’ latest…


  • Kristopher Tapley

    North Hollywood.

    And from bullet to bullet it’s 33 minutes. Not that tension and whatnot doesn’t keep the hairs sticking up on one’s neck on each side of it.

  • Ray Quick

    Berg is like the awesomest GREAT DUDE this side of Bay to make movies…. EXACTLY the guy you’d wanna be exactly like, all AWESOME and was in Shocker and apprenticed under MICHAEL MANN and used to box with Mickey Rourke and seems like an actual COOL DUDE instead of some arty beardo, making movies about GUNS and THE MILITARY and BIG CITIES with HOT CHICKS with a lot of THE COLOR BLUE. He’s the heir apparent to Mann, and I can’t wait to see this…

    One question, though: This was clearly shot in the rural, mountainous UNITED STATES. Apparently Berg studied the terrain of the real-life locales and thought the match was perfect, but even in the trailers this somehow looks like RED DAWN, like they’re fighting not in the Middle East but in some woodsy birch-beer forest out of a John Milius movie. This effect kinda sunk WE WERE SOLDIERS a notch, where you never felt like it was ‘Nam, but rather some woods up by Magic Mountain. Does it play better in the finished film? As great a visual craftsman as Berg is, even yahoos in comments sections on YouTube and IMDB are goofing on how much it just looks like their backyard in New Mexico.

  • Lark

    Awesome. I loved The Kingdom, and Luttrell’s book was fascinating. I’m curious about Ben Foster? Any chance he may be able to sneak in and get a supporting nom? For the people talking about the scenery…Parts of Afghanistan strongly resemble the mountains in New Mexico…Hell, there’s a rainforest in Iran. It’s not just arid deserts and tall, snowy mountains in the Middle East.

  • Luke Holley

    Thanks for the heads up Jeff. I got the same impression as Correcting Jeff from the trailer aka “B-grade” action movie ala Behind Enemy Lines.