A visibly pensive Mark Wahlberg threw his hat into the Best Actor race Tuesday night at AFI Fest, where the star of Peter Berg’s intense military drama Lone Survivor took the stage reluctant to go through the usual actorly rigamarole. Wahlberg plays Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the only member of SEAL Team 10 to make it home from the failed 2005 Operation Red Wings mission in Afghanistan in which 19 soldiers died. “For us to talk about what we went through up on that mountain is just so fake and so false considering what these guys did and what they went through,” he told moderator/AFI Fest Director Jacqueline Lyanga after the film’s TLC Chinese Theatre premiere where he, Berg, and Luttrell sat for an emotional Q&A. “Seeing the movie again tonight reminded me of what Marcus went through. Having a family and having a wife that I love more than anything, and having four kids I’d do anything to protect — or in my case, provide for — it hit me, the fact that those guys will never see their families again. For actors to sit there and say, ‘Oh, I went to SEAL training’ … I don’t give a fuck what you did. You don’t do what these guys do. For somebody to sit there and say my job is as difficult as somebody in the military – how fucking dare you?”
A more cynical Oscar-watcher might read Wahlberg’s declaration as self-serious awards-season posturing. But the AFI Fest audience — including servicemen, Luttrell’s own team members, family, and friends mixed in with the usual industry crowd — applauded the sentiment. Luttrell’s Texas charm and dashes of levity certainly helped raise the mood. He shared his initial apprehension at any filmmaker Hollywoodizing his 2007 bestseller Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account Of Operation Redwing And The Lost Heroes Of SEAL Team 10 and recalled how he and Berg first met on the set of the director’s Hancock. Luttrell was in town, and they arranged a meeting. The men shared “lots and lots of beers” and conversation before Luttrell chose Berg to tell his story. “I didn’t want anybody swinging from wires, I didn’t want to fall in love with a village elder’s daughter or anything like that,” he quipped. “Pete nailed it. He said, ‘You can trust me; I won’t let you down.’ And he didn’t.”
Berg spent a month in Iraq embedded with Navy SEALs in the course of his research and turned out a script that emphasizes the brotherly bond between soldiers rather than the politics of the war and of SEAL Team 10’s failed mission. (In that time he also directed the big-budget pro-military tentpole Battleship, which Universal bargained with him to do first.) He cast his Friday Night Lights and Battleship go-to Taylor Kitsch along with Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster to round out Lone Survivor’s core unit as Lt. Michael Murphy, GM2 Danny Dietz, and STG2 Matthew “Axe” Axelson, respectively. As the quartet come under fire from Taliban members armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars in a grueling firefight, Berg spares no brutal detail. The horrors of every bullet wound, broken bone, and gory injury depicted with brutal intensity made for some seat-squirming discomfort in the AFI audience. But bookending the film with montages of the real fallen SEALs hammers home the sense of loss and patriotic appreciation Berg aims to convey.
“Hopefully it won’t be so much in the next year or two, but for the last 10 years I’ve noticed myself picking up the newspaper or going online and seeing that four Marines were killed in Fallujah, or six Navy SEALs were killed in Northern Iraq, or 21 Navy SEALS were killed in a helicopter,” Berg said. “I look at these stories, and just the nature and speed of the news cycle we live in today is understandably so intense that we can’t really process it. I wanted to give people the opportunity to turn the phones off, to be quiet, to take a few breaths and to understand what these men who I’ve come to believe are the best, brightest, and decent human beings that we as a country can offer. These men and women are dying, and they’re not dying for politics. They’re dying for us, and they’re dying for each other, and it’s very important that we honor them and understand that it’s more than just a newspaper headline.”