‘Lone Survivor’ Review
War, in case you’ve forgotten, is hell.
I don’t mean to sound flip concerning a very serious topic, but I’m not really sure what else to glean from Peter Berg’s ‘Lone Survivor,’ a based-on-true-story tale of a Navy SEAL operation gone south. It is a brutal, unpleasant way to spend two hours. The violence is relentless and unsubtle, and when the audio/visual PTSD smoke clears, there’s the realization that you’ve learned nothing about these characters or the wider situation in Afghanistan. Berg’s sole intent is to simply show the job these men do – “gotta pay the bills,” one character IMs to his wife. While slice-of-life narrative can sometimes be rewarding, in a film with as much manipulation as this it just isn’t enough. ‘Lone Survivor’ rattles but it doesn’t stir.
The film follows four men on a covert op to take out a Taliban leader. (We see him behead an Afghan in flashes as Eric Bana explains the mission to the troops, to ensure that, yes, he’s a bad guy.) Taylor Kitsch is the group leader. Emile Hirsch runs communications. Foster is basically the extra guy, but he’s a good enough actor that he still stands out even with nothing to do. Mark Wahlberg is the heart of the foursome and the one who argues against killing three civilians they’ve stumbled upon who threaten blow to their cover.
After a quick ethics debate they decide to let the old man and two young people go. They think they can climb to the top of a hill and radio for help before the Afghans tell the baddies that there are Navy SEALs in the woods, but they miscalculated, and now they are going to pay.
And we’re going to pay, too. For endless stretches of time these four men have their limbs blown apart by bullets and their faces smashed in as they tumble over rocks. But the SEALs don’t let flesh-wounds get in the way, blasting the heads of Taliban fighters like pumpkins. Brains and blood burst all over the place as our four American grimace, shout, curse and, at times, deliver wretched dialogue. (“I am the reaper,” Foster intones as he picks off Afghans one by one.)
This goes on for a really, really long time. Berg cuts the action together well, resorting to slow-motion only a few times. Certain shots are clearly influenced by the ‘Call of Duty’ games, while others express the chaotic, death-is-all-around-you nature of a firefight.
Strangely, nothing in this very intense and well-choreographed sequence can hold a candle to the film’s credits sequence. Set to the inimitable music of Explosions in the Sky, the preamble to ‘Lone Survivor’ is a collage of Navy SEAL training videos. Nothing in the “agggggg, those f—ers got me!” or “tell my wife I love her!” meat of the film is as profound or resonant as seeing the nameless trainees pushing their bodies to the limit, testing their espirt de corps. An image of muscular young men with linked arms shivering in the waves as they try to stay afloat in the ocean is, I kid you not, one of the most moving single shots I’ve seen in a motion picture this year.
Despite the weight and portent Berg wants to bring to this movie (and that includes the guilt of knowing this story – even if stretched a bit – actually happened), it falls apart by the end. We conclude with a standard action movie fight scene, then the titular lone survivor narrates some bad poetry over images of military hardware.
This is, however, the movie Berg wanted to make. It is war pornography. I’m not passing judgment on it – indeed, other than a swipe at the liberal media who would misinterpret killing the civilians, this is a very unpolitical film. But, when you consider the advisory involvement of the armed forces, this is, despite the brutality, a recruitment piece.
‘12 Years A Slave‘ is a difficult movie to sit through. Yet when you come through the other end there are rich rewards. There are whole and nuanced characters and situations that speak to the conflicts that tear up individuals caught in situations greater than themselves. ‘Lone Survivor’ is a blunt hammer to the face meant to make you feel bad. It has no deep message other than to shock you into saluting. The men dying so harshly deserve better.‘Lone Survivor’ opens in select theaters on December 25 and nationwide on January 10.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.