Silver Screen: Lone Survivor ***
Lone Survivor is a movie with a spoiler right in the title. The promotional campaign, which features a closeup of star Mark Wahlberg’s grimacing mug on the poster, eliminates any potential ambiguity: By the time the credits role, no one will be alive but Marky Mark. Knowing what is to come doesn’t do much to alleviate the tension for the audience, however. In fact, director Peter Berg uses our awareness of the inevitable conclusion to ratchet up the intensity and imbue the early scenes with a sense of mounting dread in this uneven but harrowing war film.
Lone Survivor is based on a book cowritten by Marcus Luttrell, which recounts his part in a disastrous 2005 military operation in the mountains of Afghanistan. Luttrell and a team of three other men were airlifted into enemy territory on a stealth mission to capture or kill a Taliban leader. During their approach to the target they happened upon a group of shepherds, including a young boy, with potential ties to enemy forces. The rules of engagement designated the shepherds as civilians, which made killing them a war crime, yet the probability remained that allowing them to go free would compromise the soldiers’ position. After a debate, the Navy SEALs decided to follow protocol, setting off a chain of events that pitted them against an overwhelming force and claimed the lives of sixteen Americans.
If it sounds a bit like military propaganda tinged with jingoism, that’s because it is, at least during the earlygoing. Berg has previously indulged in his share of war fetishism and mild Islamophobia. His preposterous flop Battleship rivaled even the shamelessness of Michael Bay in its intertwining of dunderheaded sci-fi absurdity and nationalistic zeal, while the takeaway of the Saudi Arabia-set The Kingdom was, “You just can’t trust those people.” But the last act of Lone Survivor provides an interesting counterpoint to earlier scenes that appear to offer implicit condemnation of the rules of engagement and argue that we should kill civilians just to be on the safe side. Though Berg barely pauses the action to linger on the movie’s central moral quandary, ultimately the film does present a more nuanced perspective on the almost impossibly complicated situation on the ground for American soldiers and Afghan civilians alike.
When it comes to action, Berg delivers a little too well. Certainly he maximizes the tension during the buildup to the mission, and once the firefight starts it plays out in something akin to real time. The movie’s middle is frantic, compelling, and heartbreaking. It’s also, by all accounts, a mostly historically accurate portrayal, although the exact number of enemy combatants in the area has been in dispute almost since Luttrell first filed his official report.
I don’t blame Berg for erring on the side of more rather than fewer Taliban fighters in the mix, for the purposes of dramatization. (Various reports estimate the number of Taliban from ten to fifty.) Trouble is, the director seems to have gone with the bigger number to facilitate our quartet of Navy SEALs shooting as many people as possible in Rambo-esque fashion. Berg’s most despicable habit is the frequent shift to first-person perspectives of the soldiers so we can look through their gun scopes as one after another Taliban fighter is dispatched with an arterial geyser worthy of Peckinpah and Tarantino. The first-person-shooter perspective mimics a familiar videogame aesthetic that threatens to reduce an unimaginably horrible real-life situation into a difficult Call of Duty level. It also implies a kind of cockeyed notion of heroism in which the valor of these American soldiers is diminished if at first they don’t gun down at least five or six bad guys before they’re killed, in ways that are familiar to us in the context of escapist action cinema.
Lone Survivor ends with a lengthy video and photo montage of the real soldiers who died that day in Afghanistan. Sentimentally, it’s an appropriate tribute, but the cynic in me can’t help but see it as a callous rhetorical strategy on the part of the filmmakers. It’s the kind of coda that attempts to strong-arm an emotional reaction the film itself hasn’t really earned. We’ve learned so little about these characters during the course of two hours that it’s difficult to even connect the men to their fictional counterparts. You’ll have to get your phone out and check the IMDB to match up the appropriate names to actors Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsh, and Ben Foster, while the other soldiers in the montage are all played by essentially anonymous extras. Had the focus been less on the action— the most egregious example of which being an entirely fictional firefight to force a conventionally structured climax— the characters could have been individualized and the final moments would have greater resonance. Instead, Lone Survivor is a good movie about a battle rather than a great movie about the men who fought it.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.