In 2008, I observed that the Iraq War had inspired nearly 100 feature films or documentaries in its first five years. More "War on Terror" films have followed in the years since, nearly all of them dusty, depressing, disorienting dramatic thrillers, and their collective focus has, much like the war itself, shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan, Yemen, and wherever else terrorism sleeps. Among narrative feature films alone, there have been the great (The Hurt Locker, Stop-Loss), the good (Zero Dark Thirty, In the Loop, The Messenger), the bad (Body of Lies, In the Valley of Elah), the ugly (Green Zone, Rendition), and the inexcusable (Lions for Lambs). Among the most egregiously jingoistic films of this immediately bloated genre was The Kingdom (2007), Peter Berg's foreign policy fantasy about FBI agents running roughshod over Riyadh following an Al-Qaeda suicide bombing. It wasn't only poorly acted and riddled with clichés; it was, in the words of Time Out London’s Dave Calhoun, “Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.” (And that’s saying something for a Berg film, considering he was also the captain at the helm of 2012’s Battleship.)
Director: Peter Berg
Producers: Peter Berg, Sarah Aubrey, Randall Emmett, Norton Herrick, Barry Spikings, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Vitaly Grigoriants
Writers: Marcus Luttell (book), Pattrick Robinson (book), Peter Berg
Cinematographer: Tobias A. Schliessler
Editor: Colby Parker Jr.
Music: Steve Jablonsky
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Ali Suliman
US Theatrical Release: December 25, 2013
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
Into this stale milieu of War on Terror films arrives Berg’s Lone Survivor, an unexpectedly stirring salute to American combat troops that succeeds by demonstrating that less can be more, and acknowledging the challenge of distilling political complexities into 121 minutes. Indeed, the war exists almost in a vacuum in Lone Survivor: we know little about where the troops are, who sent them there, how long they have been there, or what psychological consequences the experience has had on them. Like Restrepo (perhaps its closest film counterpart), Lone Survivor sidesteps political landmines as it brings focus back to the horror on the front lines of a nebulous war against indefinable enemies. While not exactly a watershed moment in the War on Terror genre, it’s a major feat for Berg in venerating the American military while avoiding the temptation to demonize the entire population of Afghanistan.
The title character in Lone Survivor is Marcus Luttrell, whose memoir of the same name describes the disastrous incidents of June 28, 2005, a day which took the lives of 19 Navy SEALs and remains one of the darkest in the elite unit’s celebrated history. Zero Dark Thirty, Captain Phillips, and even 1990’s campy Navy SEALS may have wowed us with their depiction of military precision and adaptability in dynamic situations, but Lone Survivor impresses on us even more the courage required of SEALs when things are truly “FUBAR”. Luttrell and his brothers in battle (women are not yet allowed to train as SEALs) embody the type of soldiers we see within Lone Survivor’s opening documentary montage of real recruits going through SEAL training. They are not invincible or superhuman, but they “have a storm inside them,” as explained by Luttrell’s opening narration, that draws them toward the loudest, largest fights they can find. The viewer is convinced after just the first few minutes of Lone Survivor that SEALs are a different breed of soldier (even a different breed of human), which not only makes everything that happens next seem believable, but also fills the American viewer with pride—and perhaps relief—that these guys are on our side.
Since we know the outcome of the film based on its title, whose side one chooses in this fight is the source of its limited suspense. Luttrell (fully inhabited by Mark Wahlberg) and three other SEALs are the lead pawns in “Operation Red Wings,” a risky yet rather garden-variety recon mission in Kunar Province, the hinterland of Afghanistan along the border of Pakistan. Luttrell’s unit is led by Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch of the television series “Friday Night Lights”, which was created by Berg), and also includes Matt “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster) and radioman Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch). Dropped into the blackness of night, their objective is to hike several miles and covertly arrive at the outskirts of a remote village thought to be harboring Ahmad Shah, a Taliban leader with a penchant for ruthlessly murdering U.S. soldiers and civilian sympathizers.
In the early stages of the mission, a set of unexpected mishaps dooms the fearless foursome’s plan beyond even their worst contingencies. Out of position with their cover blown and unable to communicate with their commanding officer (a convincing Eric Bana), the group is forced to make critical decisions about which actions are justified and which actions are criminal in the context of their rapidly deteriorating situation. There was an amount of controversy surrounding Luttrell’s depiction in the book of a key moment in which the group argues about the U.S. military’s rules of engagement, and Berg deftly gives an even-handed examination to the issue while maintaining the pace of the film. It’s jarring to hear soldiers so nakedly share their doubts, fears, and convictions while engaging with the enemy, and it’s the most honest moment in a film that ultimately avails itself of more war movie tropes than it avoids.
Thankfully, dialogue is mostly minimal beyond this critical scene, and what follows over the next hour is a sustained series of amazingly filmed firefights and innovative point-of-view shots that are like a “Call of Duty” trailer with a Michael Bay budget. Gamers will have an easier time tolerating the claustrophobia and chaos of the battle than the average viewer, whose stomach may not be used to the “pink mist” of headshots and the sight of gaping wounds and compound fractures (of the 212 bones in the human body, Luttrell and Co. eventually can’t produce an intact skeleton between them). The body count soars as Berg constantly toes the line between keeping the viewer engaged and wearing them out with a repetitive now-they’re-safe, now-they’re-not rhythm of violence. But somehow, someway, the performances of the actors transcend Berg’s hectic method as they attempt to develop their characters with each increasingly frantic scene.
Between the four of them—Wahlberg, Foster, Hirsch, and Kitsch--Lone Survivor features arguably the best ensemble acting of any War on Terror movie to date. Wahlberg always excels in roles that allow him to balance physical intensity with moments of tender emotion, but each of the actors has leading-man charisma and they make the most with their screen time. That said, the film is not a character study like The Hurt Locker and portrays the soldiers essentially as G.I. Joe-inspired Real American Heroes, aided by cinematographer Tobias Schliessler’s worshipful lens.
To that end, there is a fine line between sympathy and sentimentality, and Lone Survivor struggles when the camera focuses instead on the local Pashtun villagers and their social code of Pashtunwali, which obliges Pashtuns to help and protect anyone in need, whether friend or enemy. Mohammad Gulab Khan (Ali Suliman, whose talents are put to little use here) was the villager whose actions ultimately saved Luttrell’s life, but in the film Gulab takes a backseat to a doe-eyed young boy—presumably his son—who befriends Luttrell and symbolizes the innocence of the Afghan people suffering through this war. It’s terribly misguided pandering, in the same vein as Jennifer Garner offering a young Saudi girl a Dum-Dum after stabbing a villain in the back of the head in The Kingdom. I have not read Luttrell’s book, but from the other accounts I have read, his rescue also did not involve a climactic battle with Ahmad Shah. (For an excellent overview of Operation Red Wings and Luttrell and Gulab’s relationship, view the December 8, 2013 episode of “60 Minutes.”) Suffice it to say, the film’s depiction of Afghans and their efforts is colored in gray, but that’s a significant step up from the black-or-white portrayals typically offered in the War on Terror genre.
In any case, Lone Survivor is not a story about the rescue or the politics, but about the battle, and the extraordinary grit demonstrated by SEALs on a routine basis, whether they survive or not, and whether their heroism is remembered only by one person, or by the millions who only understand it through Hollywood films. Berg has honored SEALs with a film that impresses upon viewers that the might of the American military comes not only from futuristic technology, but unmatched training and resolve among its elite combat units. Lone Survivor is in that sense hardly a movie about war at all, but about the strength of the human spirit, fully brought to life by the Navy SEAL Creed (the last part of which is repeated throughout the film): “I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight.”