EXCLUSIVE: Fresh from steering Battleship, Peter Berg and Universal Pictures are moving right into a January start date on Lone Survivor, an adaptation of the book by Marcus Luttrell. The film tells the harrowing story of how he and his Navy SEAL team members fought to stay alive after being ambushed in Afghanistan in 2005 by Taliban forces during a covert mission in the Hindu Kush mountain region, where the team went to kill a terrorist leader. Berg has asked his Battleship star Taylor Kitsch to play one of four SEAL team members who fight for their lives. After meeting actors for the past two weeks, Berg will set the rest of the quartet soon.

While movies involving sand and the Middle East have been assiduously avoided by Hollywood after several movies didn’t find audiences, the killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs has set in motion several films about these operatives and their dangerous missions. Disney trademarked the term SEAL Team Six, and one of the most talked about titles at Cannes has been the drama that The Hurt Locker team of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal will shoot in the fall about that SEAL Team’s long tactical campaign that culminated with the death of bin Laden. There was rumor that Universal might be one of the suitors, but the studio clearly has its own Navy SEAL movie.

Berg, who covered the Middle East terrain previously with the taut drama The Kingdom, wrote the Lone Survivor after embedding with a SEAL team for a month in Iraq, an experience that really gave him a chance to see how they do their job. Berg wanted to make the film immediately, but two years ago the studio made him a bargain: direct Battleship and then follow with Lone Survivor. Because desert-set pictures haven’t scored at the box office, Berg questioned whether the studio would move forward. Bin Laden’s death has changed all that, and it has become a question of which studio gets there first.

“They leaned right into it with me,” Berg told me. “Bin Laden’s death has cleared the way for this, a movie that will be an unapologetically patriotic film that honors and pays homage to an incredible group of badass guys who do this. The film will be a bit like Black Hawk Down, but it will focus on the quartet, which is fewer guys than that film.

“The mission was similar to the assassination mission that got bin Laden, but things got complicated when they ran into three kids and an old man,” he said. “Under the rules of engagement, they could have killed them, but they decided to let them go and take their chances, even though they knew these people would likely talk.” Shortly after, the mission had to be aborted when the SEALs found themselves under fire from about 250 Al-Qaeda soldiers. When the dust cleared — and after a rescue helicopter was blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade, 15 SEAL members were killed, and the lone survivor was Luttrell. “A massive land assault was carried out, but by then Marcus was brought to shelter by an Afghan tribe that fought off the Taliban until Luttrell could be rescued,” Berg said. The team’s leader, Mike Murphy, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Speaking of Battleship, Berg is fully aware of the high stakes as that picture goes through post to be released May 18, 2012. He’s also heard the cynics, chief among them James Cameron, who referred to the film as evidence Hollywood has a “story crisis.”

“I am very happy with the film, and of course I enjoyed the comments from people like Cameron or Stephen Colbert, who wondered who would play the red pegs and who’d play the white pegs,” Berg said. “I really appreciated their support. I understand the skepticism, but I think people will be surprised when Universal releases a trailer this summer. That should calm some of the fretting over the casting of the pegs. Universal has been really supportive through the whole process.”