The story: A four-man Navy Seal team is inserted by helicopter onto the side of a mountain in Kunar province, Afghanistan, to perform surveillance on a Taleban leader based in a nearby village. Things go awry when a group of goat herders stumble on the Americans. After detaining and releasing the herders, the team hike up the mountain looking for a means of evacuation, but they are surprised by an overwhelming force of Taleban fighters. Based on the 2007 account by former Seal Marcus Luttrell, the only member of the team who survived.
There are several paths this film could have taken. Because it relies on the permission of Marcus Luttrell, a participant in the events, and the goodwill of the families of dead soldiers, there is a good chance it might have become either a two-hour military recruitment advertisement (Act Of Valor, 2012), an ode to American codes of honour (Saving Private Ryan, 1998), or an eulogy to the fallen.
This project differs from Black Hawk Down (2001), or the HBO mini-series Generation Kill (2008), in that both were based on books written by war correspondents, not soldiers involved in the fighting.
Director Peter Berg himself likes to wave the stars and stripes (Battleship, 2012). So it comes as a surprise that the film is as interesting as it is.
There is no question that this is an unreservedly patriotic work in that it avoids asking the moral whys of why men fight, or even asks troubling smaller questions, such as why four Seal team members were stranded or why their rescue team, when they arrived in a helicopter, were so vulnerable to rocket attack.
In the film's first two-thirds, Berg maintains a steady focus on men doing their jobs - running and training, planning, looking up maps and charts, giving briefings, using weapons and radios. He has a nerd's fascination with military jargon and the goings-on inside a working unit. The richly detailed view is fascinating and, most importantly, contributes to the feeling of realism.
The only troubling bits are during the opening sequence (a slow-motion paean to the rigours of Seal training using real documentary footage) and the closing which, in its attempt to raise the stakes of Luttrell's rescue, strikes a false note.
Team members Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) are portrayed in as realistic a manner as one can expect from a work like this. They have none of the cynicism of the men in Generation Kill or show any of the human failings seen in Black Hawk Down's soldiers. But neither do they wax lyrical about duty and honour. They bicker and tease and talk about their sweethearts and wives.
The film's highlight is the battle sequence in the middle, which Berg and stunt coordinator Kevin Scott capture in full, harrowing detail. It is a standout setpiece and will be remembered as a filmic milestone along with the landing on Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan or the jungle ambush in Forrest Gump (1994).
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