Not since Snakes on a Plane has there been a film with such a spoiler alert built into its title. (But how many of the men make it out alive???)
Yes, only one soldier lives to tell this true tale of an Afghanistan mission gone horribly awry. And, as is often the case with the films by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom), the film’s politics are all over the map.
It starts with some actual footage of Navy SEAL “Hell week,” including the shameful bell that is rung when a young recruit can’t take any more of the physical and emotional punishment. I thought these opening images displayed some compassion for the sad-faced young men who cried uncle. But as the fictionalized part of our story begins, it becomes clear that Berg was more interested in how strong, how stalwart, how mentally tough the SEALs who made the cut were. He idolizes the band of brothers they become.
These early scenes, on a base camp in Afghanistan, seem to hum with the rhythms of daily life—the gentle hazing, the physical one-upmanship, the good natured grief-giving. When four SEALs are assigned to bring back a Taliban warlord, it seems relatively routine. (One wide-eyed newbie is jealous that he can’t come.)
The four SEALs don’t have particularly distinct personalities, I’m sorry to say. Taylor Kitsch plays the alpha male—level-headed and decent and strong. Emile Hirsch is the squirt of the group, slightly hen-pecked by his wife (he finds himself sifting though decorator’s paint samples, at her behest). Ben Foster is the steeliest one, the most willing to do what it takes. As for our leading man Mark Wahlberg? He doesn’t seem to have much of a personality beyond: good guy.
But almost as soon as they arrive, something goes wrong: They stumble across a shepherd and his son. If they kill the shepherd, they won’t be able to live with themselves, but if they let him free, what’s to stop him from alerting the Taliban of their whereabouts? They do the right thing, morally, and perhaps the wrong thing, strategically, and let him go.
In short order, they are surrounded.
Here’s where the film will either lose you or grab hold of you for good: Most of Lone Survivor is that battle in the craggy mountains of Afghanistan. It’s very long, it’s very technical, it’s very bloody. I give Berg credit for mimesis—at least it sure looked authentic to me. But I simply didn’t want to watch this bloody and sickening fight go on and on. What’s more, it seemed sensationalized, yet another way for Berg to underscore the superhuman toughness of these SEALs (literally riddled with bullets, they still manage to engage in close combat and protect each other).
On the one hand, Berg is showing us the hell of war, especially war in a convoluted political backdrop like Afghanistan, where it’s hard to distinguish between the civilians and the combatants. On the other, the film is undeniably gung ho (even with all that blood and death it could still be shown as part of a Navy SEAL recruitment package). And then Wahlberg’s Marcus Luttrell is saved by a kindly Afghan villager who loves Americans and what they’ve done for his country. Alrighty then.
Lone Survivor is a well crafted piece of filmmaking—taut and swift, with close attention to the kind of details that bring a world to life. But any war film they could easily make a video game out of is no war film for me.