The key moment in Peter Berg's upcoming, fact-based war movie "Lone Survivor" occurs when four U.S. Navy SEALs, hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan while on a mission to kill a Taliban leader, encounter three goat herders. The SEALs quickly boil down their options to three choices: 1) Tie up the shepherds, one of whom is a boy, and leave them in the mountains to freeze 2) kill the shepherds immediately or 3) let them go, abort the mission and hike up to the summit to be extracted before Taliban forces find them.
"That's what grabbed me, that dilemma," Berg said during a Q&A following a screening of the film Wednesday night at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood. "These decisions happen every day -- and are still happening. We just don't hear about them. We don't think about them."
The film, adapted from former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell's book, stands as Berg's attempt to prod moviegoers to think, for at least a couple of hours, about those decisions, along with the sacrifices that those in uniform make to serve their country.
Luttrell attended the screening, as did Mark Wahlberg, who portrays him in the film. They were joined by Berg and Taylor Kitsch, who plays SEAL Team 10 leader Michael Murphy. Journalist Tina Brown moderated the Q&A, which wisely centered on Lutrell's experiences in Afghanistan and his thoughts on the movie.
"It's a situation that wasn't in the manual," Lutrell said of the encounter with the shepherds. "We ran with it. We dealt with it the best we could."
Lutrell remained actively involved in the movie after giving Berg the rights to his book, following an evening that, by Berg's count, included "500 beers" and many hours of conversation.
"I've never felt more pressure playing somebody," Walhberg said, "but I've never felt more pride, either."
"Lone Survivor" will open in a limited theatrical release on Dec. 27 before going wide on Jan. 10. Universal feels strongly enough about it that Ron Meyer, the studio's president, came to the screening Wednesday to introduce the film to a select group of academy members, journalists and industry folk.
Berg's past movies ("Friday Night Lights," "The Kingdom"), informed by what he calls the "psychology of violence," have never made any inroads at the Oscars. But "Lone Survivor," with its deeply felt look at the bonds and courage that unite those in uniform, could be an exception, provided it generates a passion vote among voters inclined to show that Hollywood can make patriotic movies that unabashedly admire military character and codes.
It should also be noted that Walhberg's work as the stalwart Lutrell is, in many respects, every bit as good as Tom Hanks' turn in another recent survivor's tale, "Captain Phillips." Unfortunately, the academy has been slow to recognize Wahlberg's talents, giving him just one nomination (a very deserved one for "The Departed") over the years. That's not likely to change this year, though Wahlberg says he already has the one accolade that counts.
"He was proud," Wahlberg said last night, looking over at Luttrell. "That was all that mattered to me."
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