EXCLUSIVE: Sensing it could have a strong year-end awards season contender, Universal has decided to platform its January 10th wide release of its Afghanistan war drama Lone Survivor with a 12/27 limited (LA/NY) debut. The shift will qualify the film for Oscars and other awards and get critical and audience word-of-mouth out there before the broader previously announced early 2014 release. Having seen the Peter Berg-directed true story in unfinished form, the move makes sense for a film that, despite unrelenting graphic violence that is hard to watch at times, really packs the kind of emotional punch that should play well with awards voters.

Coming off the box office disaster of Battleship, the movie represents a strong return to form for Berg that is more in line with what he did on 2004’s Friday Night Lights than the aforementioned 2012 bloated blockbuster. The film, which stars Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana and Taylor Kitsch (who also finds redemption after facing critical brickbats for both John Carter and Battleship), is a riveting story of four Navy SEALs involved in an ill-fated  covert mission to thwart a high-level Taliban operative when they are ambushed by enemy forces in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan. Notwithstanding some of the most intense and realistic battle scenes in recent memory, it goes beyond the average war film in fleshing out real three-dimensional human beings caught up in the moral consequences of war, and in that way is more reminiscent of past Best Picture Oscar winners like Platoon (1986) and Universal’s own The Deer Hunter (1978). One  scene in particular is riveting to watch in which the SEALS, weighing their own chances of survival, collectively must decide if a small group of locals should live or die. Certainly the film presents moral dilemmas that will cause strong debate. It is based on the New York Times bestseller, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account Of Operation Redwing And The Lost Heroes Of SEAL Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell (with Patrick Robinson), the Navy SEAL portrayed in the film by Wahlberg.

During the studio’s presentation at April’s Cinemacon, Universal Chairman Adam Fogelson told theater owners, “we have seen the first cut of (Peter Berg’s ) next film Lone Survivor and it is soulful, gritty, tough, emotional and, quite frankly, remarkable”.  Due to that “gritty” nature it is probably not the easiest of sells and will need that kind of unqualified studio backing to gain real traction in an awards race that is already shaping up as very competitive.

The studio, which was in the Oscar game last year with 8 nominations (including Best Picture) and 3 wins for Les Miserables, is currently planning its 2013 awards season which, in addition to the just-added Lone Survivor, is also likely to include director Ron Howard‘s auto racing drama, Rush, another real-life story depicting the 70’s track rivalry of Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. Despite top tech credits (it was brilliantly shot by Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar winner Anthony Dod Mantle) it really has more of the feel of an indie film for Howard, a real passion project that contains strong performances from Chris Hemsworth and particularly Daniel Bruhl as Lauda. It definitely could be a contender in several categories.  A September 20th release, Universal will likely – and should –  first take this somewhere on the Fall fest circuit, probably Toronto.