Sometimes it's hard to separate movies about war from the people and events that inspired them.
Bad war movies like "Pearl Harbor," "Red Tails" and "Windtalkers" unnecessarily add love-triangles or just make up stuff about battles where people really did incredible, almost unbelievably courageous acts under impossible situations. Even war movies that "got it right," like "Saving Private Ryan," "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Black Hawk Down" condense time and characters or fudge the truth for the sake of "entertainment."
"Lone Survivor" — a gripping film about four Navy SEALs who never stopped fighting despite overwhelming opposition — falls somewhere in between those two groups.
The title alone could be considered one of the film's biggest weaknesses. Much like the powerful "12 Years a Slave," the ultimate outcome is never uncertain.
Writer and director Peter Berg ("Battleship," "Friday Night Lights") based his screenplay on the book "Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10," written by former SEAL Marcus Luttrell and the proverbial lone survivor of a 2005 mission in Afghanistan that claimed the lives of 19 U.S. soldiers.
In preparation for the film, Berg was embedded with SEALs in Iraq and invited Luttrell to stay at his home. Mark Wahlberg ("The Fighter," "Pain & Gain") — who plays Luttrell — and Berg both have said the hulking Texan's presence inspired everyone on set to portray his story to the best of their ability — sometimes to disastrous effect.
After being ambushed by a large group of Taliban fighters, the SEALs are forced to retreat to a cliff's edge. Facing certain death if they don't move, the SEALs do the only thing they can and jump off a sheer wall of hard, sharp shale to an uncertain fate. On the day the scene was filmed, Luttrell got into the ear of one of stuntmen and pumped him up for the leap.
“I went up, I’m like, ‘What are you going to do?’” Berg recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, I’m going to run off this cliff, I’m going to leap off it, I’m going to hit that tree, I’m going to bounce off the tree, I’m going to hit a rock, and I’m going to bounce out.’”
Three broken ribs and a punctured lung later, the stuntman was airlifted from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of the Santa Fe National Forest where much of the filming took place.
According to "Lone Survivor's" production notes, Berg was so devoted to keeping the action as faithful as possible he "had asked to see the autopsy reports of those who had been killed" to better recreate their wounds.
But Berg's desire for accuracy also plays out in less graphic ways. When Lt. Mike Murphy — played by Taylor Kitsch ("John Carter," "Friday Night Lights") — gets out of bed, the photographs on his bunk actually belong to Murphy. The same goes for while Matthew “Axe” Axelson — played with intensity by Ben Foster ("3:10 to Yuma," "Alpha Dogs") — is instant messaging his wife before the mission. The photograph taped to his laptop isn't of some actress, but actually is Axelson's wife. Emile Hirsch ("Into the Wild," "Speed Racer") met with the parents of Danny Dietz during pre-production at their home and actually sat on Dietz's bed while the SEAL's father told Hirsch about their son.
It's unfortunate though that Berg's drive to be true to the story doesn't last for the whole film. Without giving too much away, Luttrell's real rescue was less dramatic than in the movie, which seems to have been devised simply for entertainment and where the film starts to slide from "Black Hawk Down" into "Pearl Harbor" — or even worse — "Battleship" territory.
"Lone Survivor" (rated R for graphic violence and profanity) opens nationwide on Jan. 10.