There is an old war movie cliché that says that if a soldier mentions his sweetheart back home, chances are good he won’t make it back to her. In Lone Survivor, Peter Berg’s exciting but obtuse adaptation of veteran Marcus Luttrell’s combat memoir, no less than three sweethearts are introduced within the first five minutes. Beyond a tired contrivance for goading audience sympathy, the device effectively dooms the beaus on the battlefield. It also helps to illustrate how unenlightened Berg’s movie remains on all fronts. Even if you’re not trained to notice common movie omens, the writer/director, assuming everyone already knows the outcome of Luttrell’s story, basically, in a pointless flash-forward, reveals his characters’ fates straightaway. But rather than a harrowing anticipation of the inevitable (like, say, United 93), Lone Survivor diminishes its potential by marching through a minefield of clichés and, worse, advocating backwards war glorification.
In a similarly unlucky harbinger, the movie’s most interesting bit occurs during the opening credits. Documentary footage shows the Spartan training exercises of actual Navy Seals. For example, some are submerged for prolonged periods in freezing water; others understandably drop from the program as regularly as raindrops into a bucket. The movie sets-up the Seals’ extraordinary physical resilience to be tested in the coming scenes. Initially, Lone Survivor seemed like a more gung-ho spin on Full Metal Jacket. That movie brilliantly showed how the military turns human beings into killing machines. But instead of Kubrick’s penetrating observations on the encompassing psychological trauma, Berg’s view is more jingoistic, reflecting modern Americans’ erroneous attitude that Navy Seals are essentially real-life superheroes. Once the primary setting (Afghanistan, 2004) is established, Berg champions the competitiveness, camaraderie, and ritualistic hazing of this exclusive society of fighting men. But the result is less a candid portrait of a military unit than a venerating parade intent on showing off its subjects as demigods rather than people.
That problem extends into the narrative proper: four Seals—a Lieutenant (Taylor Kitsch), a sharpshooter (Ben Foster), a radio-operator (Emile Hirsch), and a rifleman (Mark Wahlberg)—are dropped into hostile enemy territory to terminate a notorious Taliban commander. The mission goes awry almost immediately, after the mountainous terrain disrupts the communication equipment. Then a fateful encounter with some local goat herders leads to a dilemma: “terminate the compromise” (a euphemism for murder the civilians) or release them, and endanger yourself to armed opposition when the farmers inform the enemy of your proximity. The team admirably, yet unwisely, chooses the latter, and within minutes find themselves surrounded by Taliban forces. Hardly a humanistic filmmaker, Berg exploits the compassion American viewers inherently possess for troops in jeopardy. Most of the film’s power derives from images of bloodied servicemen tumbling down rocky mountainsides. The director neglects to bestow on his central foursome the well-rounded, individualized personalities that normally generate sympathy from viewers for characters in dramatized scenarios.
A firefight, that’s prolonged and gory yet discernibly void of genuine horror, segues into the true story’s most astonishing element. Luttrell was actually protected and given safe-haven by Afghan villagers. It’s pretty remarkable that locals would protect an American at the risk of their and their children’s lives. The camera lingers overtly on the face of an impressionable local boy to emphasize this lesson in empathy over malice. Considered alongside the militants who hunt restlessly for American scalps, and the herdsmen who previously returned mercy with betrayal, the sequence is Berg’s feeble attempt at moral judiciousness. He pulled a similar stunt in The Kingdom: that film posited that the CIA and al-Qaeda’s most conspicuous commonality was the perpetual cycle of revenge. Under the director’s typically bantamweight touch, though, the analysis here is equally simpleminded. According to the filmmaker, the citizens land jejunely on a condescending paradigm of good-Afghans and bad-Afghans. His thematic agenda lacks the political, cultural, and religious shading that accompanies other more perceptive tales of moral conflict during wartime.
As a somewhat pretentious shoot-em-up, Lone Survivor is really quite watchable, though it obviously seeks to be ranked amongst America’s finest war movies. The genre’s best examples approach the phenomenon from a specific angle: political (Paths Of Glory and Black Hawk Down), psychological (The Hurt Locker), racial (Glory), and even spiritual (Vietnam mindbenders like Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and The Deer Hunter). Berg hasn’t a fresh point-of-view, and even more, sometimes seems to be warmongering. The truth is that the military sent these men into a dangerous situation with neither the personnel nor the equipment to accomplish their mission safely and successfully. When it went wrong, the base sent a rescue party unescorted by armed helicopters, putting even more Americans in harm’s way. I have the utmost respect for Navy Seals, but even more than clichés, I have a problem with a war movie that celebrates sacrifice without ever questioning its necessity.