Director Peter Berg opens his latest film with a montage of real footage of Navy SEALs pushing their bodies to the limit. We see them go to the point of exhaustion and push through, limbs shaking, eyes glazing over, lungs screaming for air. The trainees aid each other, buoying the spirits of their brotherly band. Not everyone will make the final cut—the training is hellish and the body can only take so much—but no one wants anyone else to wash out.
These scenes are crucial to understanding what follows and a handy reminder that the quartet of heroes we follow for most of the film—Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster)—are real people. Without those sequences we might have trouble believing these soldiers would have the fortitude to literally throw themselves down a mountain, bouncing off of boulders and crashing into trees, in order to keep fighting a horde of Taliban sadists.
Berg is equally deft at briefly characterizing the nature of the enemy the Americans are there to fight. Scenes of Taliban commander Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami) beheading an Afghan villager accused of collaborating with the Americans are spliced into a description of the mission Luttrell et al will undertake to capture him. As a result, when one of the soldiers says "I don’t want your mom seeing your decapitated head on Al Jazeera," we know it’s no idle worry.
When their cover is blown by a group of shepherds, the SEALs are faced with a choice: tie the shepherds up and risk their starving or freezing in the Afghan mountains; shoot them and risk getting splashed all over CNN as war criminals; or let them go and risk getting caught by an army of Taliban fighters. The final choice is the most honorable and most dangerous. It is the one they make. And it sets in motion a fight for the ages.
The film’s main action centers on the quartet’s firefight with the Taliban horde. Imagine Black Hawk Down but set in the wilderness rather than a city and you get a sense for the intensity of the sequence. Outnumbered and outgunned, superior training and physical fortitude will only carry these soldiers so far.
Berg’s film is beautifully shot and thrillingly paced. You can tell that he and the actors, Wahlberg and Kitsch in particular, have a real affection for these men and feel a real duty to portray them honorably. And Berg remains one of the few mainstream directors to train a clear eye on America’s fight against Islamist savagery.
Between Lone Survivor and 2007’s The Kingdom, Berg has proven that he is comfortable portraying the evil of religious extremists with unflinching clarity. It’s important to note that he does not do so solely by showing their viciousness toward Americans; rather, he contrasts the behavior of honorable Afghan villagers to the dishonorable Taliban warlords. In doing so, he not only inoculates himself from charges of cultural imperialism but also reminds us what 48,000 U.S. soldiers continue to fight against in Afghanistan.