Universal gave a sneak peak of its war movie Lone Survivor on Thursday night, signaling its intent to position the movie as an awards contender.
But as riveting as the movie was to those who saw it, the evening belonged to Marcus Luttrell, the former Navy SEAL whose experiences the movie recounts.
“To talk about how hard we worked is bullshit,” said Mark Walhberg, who portrays Luttrell in the Pete Berg-directed movie, “not compared to what he and the others did.”
Walhberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch star as members of SEAL Team 10 that, on a mission to capture a Taliban leader in 2005, came across a trio of sheep herders in the Afghan mountains. After debating whether or not to kill them (there was a chance the herders would alert the Taliban), the SEALs let them go, to tragic results.
In the ensuing battle with Taliban soldiers, only Luttrell was the left alive — and just barely. The movie is based on Luttrell’s memoir.
On stage at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood, Luttrell received a standing ovation from the audience. Wahlberg, Kitsch and Berg also attended the post-film Q&A, moderated by Tina Brown.
Luttrell, with a Texas accent and Southern charm — he said he wouldn’t use profanities because there were women in the audience — and a service dog resting at this feet, held the crowd’s attention as he recounted the injuries he sustained.
He suffered a broken back, broken pelvis, was shot numerous times, bit his tongue in half, was struck by shrapnel from his shoulders to feet, had his hand crushed when he was captured by the Taliban, contracted a parasite when he drank water in the woods — and that’s just a partial list of his injuries.
Walhberg, meanwhile, said it was hard having Luttrell on set. While he spent time with the man, he didn't want to pepper him with what he considered actor-y questions, not after knowing what he and other just like him went through.
"We always had the luxury of going back to the hotel at the end of the day," Wahlberg said. “I never felt more pressure playing someone, but I never felt more pride either.”
Berg and the cast took great pains to get to know the families of the men they were portraying. Kitsch recalled a dinner he had with the family of Mike Murphy.
Luttrell said Berg told him the goal was to make a movie that would please him. “You don't have to worry about me,” Luttrell recalled telling Berg. “You have to worry about the other 1,200 to 1,500 SEALs who’ll come and snatch you out of your bed.”
In recent weeks, the movie was screened for the families of the SEALs as well as the families of the Nightstalkers, the elite helicopter warriors.
Berg and Walhberg said they were taken by the idea of how this group of roughly 24-year olds made their fateful decision.
“We don’t have to think of these decisions. We can sit here and pass judgments. This was very penetrating for me and why I did the movie,” Berg said.
The story of this battle and Luttrell’s memoir were the subject of a lot of Hollywood interest around 2006 but Berg won the man over by showing him a rough assembly cut of his 2007 Middle East terrorist thriller The Kingdom.
Luttrell was impressed by the attention to detail. And it’s that sort of attention that is seen on screen in Lone Survivor. For example, Berg went to the families of the deceased to see the autopsy reports in order to faithfully replicate the many injuries the men sustained.
During the Q&A, Luttrell was asked if he regretted making his decision. He said he did but at the same time intoned that he would have made the same call and not killed the sheepherders.
“We’re hot murderers. We don’t mess around. We don’t rape, we don’t do acts of revenge, we don’t commit robberies. The three R’s. We’re not bloodthirsty animals.”