By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - From shooting down a helicopter to firefights, film director Peter Berg spared no details to recreate a tragic United States Navy SEALs mission in Afghanistan in "Lone Survivor," an unflinching account of one of the worst losses of life in the history of the special operations force.
The film, which opens in limited theaters in the United States on Christmas Day and wider release on January 10, 2014, is based on the best-selling book by Marcus Luttrell, the only man who lived to recount what happened during the covert June 2005 Operation Red Wings in which 11 SEALs and eight soldiers died.
Two-time Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg plays Luttrell, a medic and a sharpshooter who was one of a four-man team dropped by helicopter in the rugged mountains near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan on a mission to find a Taliban leader.
The operation was compromised when three Afghan goat herders stumbled upon them, leaving the men with a moral dilemma that would lead to the deaths of their unarmed captives or their own.
"The dominant experience for me was the brotherhood that existed between these four men - the tragedy of their loss," said Berg, the director of 2012's action-adventure film "Battleship."
Not long after releasing their Afghan captives and scampering further up the mountain hoping to be rescued, the SEALs are outnumbered by Taliban on three sides. They are forced into a firefight and to hurl themselves off steep cliffs, tumbling like rag dolls, slamming against boulders and trees, shattering limbs as bullets and rocket-propelled grenades whizzed by.
"We fought them for hours and hours until we ran out of bullets and we ran out of blood," said Luttrell, who despite wounds and a broken back, crawled for miles and was saved by the kindness of an Afghan villager.
Berg, 51, holds nothing back in the intense, brutal battle scenes, depicting war in all its gruesome detail. A helicopter, carrying eight more SEALs and eight soldiers, sent to rescue Luttrell and his team is blasted out of the sky, killing all on board.
Comradery, war and bravery are recurring themes for Berg, an actor, writer and producer, who also directed the 2007 action thriller "The Kingdom."
"I consistently find myself attracted to the psychology of violence and people who are willing to put themselves in this kind of situation," said Berg, who spent time embedded with a SEAL team before adapting Luttrell's book for the screen.
The film from Universal Studios, a unit of Comcast Corp garnered some positive early reviews, although, as The Hollywood Reporter film critic Todd McCarthy noted, the tough subject matter may limit its box office success.
"The film is rugged, skilled, relentless, determined, narrow-minded and focused, everything that a soldier must be when his life is on the line," McCarthy wrote in his review.
Joining Wahlberg is Taylor Kitsch ("Savages") as Michael Murphy, the on-ground team officer who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts to save his men.
Emile Hirsch ("Into the Wild") portrays Danny Dietz, the team's communications officer, while Ben Foster ("3:10 to Yuma") is sonar technician Matthew "Axe" Axelson and Eric Bana ("Star Trek") is Erik Kristensen, the commander of the operation.
Luttrell, now 38 and retired in Texas, and other SEALs were on the set when the film was shot in New Mexico, helping Berg and the actors portray what happened as accurately as possible.
Wahlberg, 42, admitted being nervous about playing Luttrell and about the scrutiny the film would receive from the families of the men who died, the SEAL community and the military as a whole. But he felt the film needed to be made.
"I saw the importance of it as being bigger than my fears and insecurities," Wahlberg said in an interview. "I just thought I needed to be a part of it and needed to get the story told."
Wahlberg dismissed any suggestion that "Lone Survivor" is a machismo, gung-ho war film and he said he wanted audiences to have "a stronger appreciation for what those guys do. This is by no means a pro-war movie."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)