The bloody Lone Survivor stays agonizingly real

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Starring Mark Wahlberg and Emile Hirsch. Rated 14A.

There are plenty of potential pitfalls in Lone Survivor, most of which are dodged with a surprising amount of skill. The outcome here is bleak and not especially thoughtful. As war movies go, this one is as bloody as they come. On the plus side, there’s a spare, almost brisk quality that nimbly avoids becoming an exercise in cheap thrills.

Based on actual events, Lone Survivor tells the story of a SEAL team’s ill-fated mission to assassinate a high-ranking member of the Taliban. Set in 2005 in Afghanistan, Operation Red Wings derails with frightening speed. What follows—including an empathetic mistake in judgment and a fatal breakdown in communication—leads to disaster for the SEALs.

The screenplay is based on the eyewitness account of the mission’s sole survivor, Marcus Luttrell (portrayed with grim efficiency by Mark Wahlberg). Director and cowriter Peter Berg avoids back story, stripping down Luttrell’s book to concentrate on the fierce battle that ensues between the Taliban and the outnumbered SEALs. There is precious little character development here, apart from the usual terse exchanges of brotherhood and solidarity typical of the genre. As a result, the three other members of the SEAL team (played by Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch) tend to blur into one murky whole.

What do we get instead? Some of the most fully realized battle scenes in recent memory. Thankfully, we’re not in video-game territory. As a director, Berg delivers an almost agonizing level of realism. Watching the SEAL team struggle to keep going after numerous bullet wounds—their faces covered in blood—isn’t for the squeamish, but it’s to Berg’s credit that he doesn’t flinch from the brutality of combat.

There are isolated moments when Lone Survivor cranks up the propaganda to stereotypical levels. When a sympathetic Afghan family offers a severely wounded Luttrell sanctuary from the Taliban, we’re subjected to the kind of sentimental war-movie clichés that flirt with sinking the movie’s tough purpose. Although they work on a purely emotional level, we can’t help feeling a little manipulated.

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