Review: “Lone Survivor”

“What do you mean this isn’t the set of Ted 2?”

Lone Survivor is one of those movies that I don’t really plan on thinking about ever again, so to devote my time to telling you about it seems counterproductive, or even masochistic. But it is a movie (that’s expanding to wide release on January 10th), I did see it with my eyes, and I do have a blog which mainly serves to tell people about new movies I’ve seen. So despite the lack of thought it provoked in my mind, here are some words about Peter Berg’s mindlessly patriotic movie based on true events, Lone Survivor.

Peter Berg isn’t exactly at the peak of his career. His last movie was Battleship, a movie that is most famous for making no money and making Rihanna say things like, “sir, we’ll be in weapons range in five minutes.” Before that he made Hancock with Will Smith, which probably still holds the distinction in my mind as the quickest a movie has gone from good to terrible. So when I decided to watch Lone Survivor for unknown reasons, I didn’t exactly hold the director in my highest regards. 

As it turns out, Lone Survivor — which he both directed and wrote — is most notable for its dubious moral stance on war. Or rather, the absence of any kind of moral or ethical functioning.  What Berg was trying to create, which was clearly a story about four brothers whose red-hot American bromance is the only thing that can successfully allow them to kill a bunch of foreign people and survive their ordeal, kind of falls by the wayside.

The movie is based off of a real-life Afghanistan operation that failed spectacularly. I don’t know much about how the military works, but the movie could not make their mission feel more simplistic. A Taliban guy killed marines, so now four Navy SEALs (played by Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, and Emile Hersch) have to find him and kill him back.

Pretty simple, huh? Of course, once they’re there things get marginally more complicated when a bunch of goats come through their position in the mountains. And before Mark Wahlberg can tell the goat, “Say hi to your mother for me,” the SEALs are discovered by the goats’ herders.

What follows is an example of the strange lack of moral/emotional reasoning that pervades the entire film. The SEALs tie up the herders (two kids and an old man), and in the film’s only long scene of dialogue, discuss whether to let them go and risk them informing their target of American presence, or to kill them. Wahlberg’s character basically explains that of course they can’t kill these innocent people — because it would be all over CNN.  Not once is the thought entertained that maybe they shouldn’t kill these people because they are innocent people

I usually wouldn’t knock a film for what I perceive to be questionable morals (I loved The Wolf of Wall Street, after all), but in Lone Survivor, it feels less like the characters have few morals than like the moral implications of the entire operation, or war in general, were completely ignored during the writing and shooting of the film. From the beginning, the film seems to take the position that of course these Arabs deserve to die because they are Arabs and we can’t understand anything they say other than ‘Allahu Akhbar’. There’s even a joke about how Arabs like beheading things.

A curveball later in the film challenges the Islamophobia that a lot of the tension of the movie relies on, but it never tackles these themes directly. Without giving too much away, audiences are expected to be surprised when – surpirse! – not all Arab people are bloodthirsty. I felt less surprised than offended.

“I produced Entourage.”

Let’s get the movie’s other big problems out of the way before I mention the fact that overall it isn’t that bad. The action is surprisingly gory, showing every Arab death onscreen with almost Tarantino-like blood spurts. First of all, it’s jarring to see a true story, which ends with a dedication to the heroes of the operation, treated like a full-on, chest-pumping American action movie.

Second, we are supposed to get the feeling that the four Americans are outnumbered immensely, but they hit every target with such ease that its hard to feel like they are really in that much danger. They get shot multiple times but still fight — when an enemy gets shot, they always die right away.

Finally, the film tries to differentiate itself from other war movies by injecting a sense of brotherhood between the four main soldiers. The movie starts at base camp, where the characters say a few things about their own lives, and their fellow shoulders give their own advice. But this is the absolute bare minimum, and all we are given.

Credit where credit is due though: none of these flaws can take away all of the stuff that the movie does exceptionally well. The scenery (consisting mainly of green pine forests and steep rocky paths) is beautiful, and this is easily the best-shot film Berg has done. The action, despite being overly violent, is certainly exciting and its always easy to understand the spatiality of the battlefield. One badass death sequence has to be the coolest I’ve seen in a long time. And the actors, which are likely the only real reasons I decided to watch the movie, all do their jobs really well.

The point is, if you can get yourself to ignore the fact that the movie at times feels like pro-American, xenophobic propaganda, and that it really is about as insubstantial and simplistic as a war movie can be, there is plenty to enjoy in  Lone Survivor. This journey will appeal most to those who are obsessive about the military (and there are plenty of people I know like that), are tired of playing Call of Duty and would rather watch how much better Americans are at killing people, or thought that Zero Dark Thirty was too much of a downer.

In closing, Lone Survivor could be a lot worse, but it also could have used more thought and more emotion. Based on the movieI get the feeling that Peter Berg is the kind of guy who sings this song without realizing it’s supposed to be satire:

Honestly, there is no better video to accompany this post.

I wasn’t planning on making this a review because I’d rather just have a conversation about movies without giving someone else’s movie a subjective score.

Then again, I’m just some guy. 2.5 out of 5 stars. 

Looks pretty stupid without actual stars though. Oh well, who cares.

-Sam

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