Tuesday, December 24, 2013


The true story Lone Survivor tells is inherently mournful, but the film is too slickly pumped up and narrowly focused to communicate much of it. The story follows a SEAL Team on a mission to kill a Taliban leader in the mountains of Afghanistan that went wrong, trapping the men in a firefight that ended with all but one dead. This sad story of sacrifice is presented simply as an extended action sequence that envelops at least half of the runtime. Focused on one moment of pain and death, the film traps its characters, boxed in by the inevitability of their story. We don’t get to see them as living people so much as we sit around waiting to see how they die. It’s a film happy to play with broad types, sparsely characterized, quickly sketching in their specifics in cheap and easy ways. One’s a rookie. Another’s getting married. We should care about them as people – the better to make the lengthy bit of action filmmaking impactful – but instead we’re to care about them as the same standard crew war movies have had since they’ve been an identifiable subgenre. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not fair to the audience.

Writer-director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Battleship) easily creates a sense of what it might be like to be in the middle of a gun battle in Afghanistan if Hollywood filmmakers staged them. It is loud, repetitive, chaotic, and a chance to show off squibs and pyrotechnics as the SEALs are slowly picked off one by one by a largely faceless enemy force. Before we get there, though, we sit with these men through their briefing and then as they set up a stakeout of a mountain village, spying their Taliban target below. Because the actors are likable – Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster – it’s easy enough to sit through their macho militarism. Because Berg and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler have a fine sense of thriller-y procedural nervous energy, the scenes in the command bunkers with Eric Bana – as their commanding officer – and Alexander Ludwig – as an overeager rookie – play out with some surface sleekness. It’s all so very professionally done.

In these early moments the film is full of gleaming glamour shots of hardware and camaraderie right out of a recruitment ad. The SEALs are buddies who jog around the base and haze each other (gently, of course) and listen intently as they’re told their target is a “bad guy” in an info dump briefing that has more in common with a video game cut scene than anything more convincing. We don’t know who these characters are, but they sure look the part. They seem to know what they’re doing. The movie doesn’t have time to slow down otherwise. By the time they’re sitting in the mountains, staring down at their target, it’s been a pretty successfully rosy picture of war that’s about to be shot down. But it’s not like the movie has much of a point of view. It’s bad luck that gets them into their doomed mission and good luck (and a kind deed returning unexpected dividends) that gets one out.

Two kids and an old man herding their goats back to their home accidentally infiltrate the stakeout. Here the film finds an interesting moral dilemma briefly entertained. Let them go and risk being found by the Taliban in the village? Or kill them and be sure of completing the mission without exposure? They do the right thing after brief debate, which leads the Taliban fighters right up the hill to find them. (It’s unclear if their decision directly led to this, but that’s certainly the implication.) What follows is the hour of tense bloody conflict up and down the mountainside, crouching behind branches and rocks as the dead pile up on both sides of the conflict.

I’m reminded of the famous quote from Francois Truffaut about the impossibility of making an anti-war film because of the action’s inherent exciting qualities. That’s certainly a problem for Lone Survivor, with its endlessly exchanged rounds of gunfire, overeager effects work – look at that exploding helicopter and its lovingly CGI carnage – and gunsight crosshairs killshots right out of a first person shooter. Or rather, it’d be a problem if it seemed to be a film interested in being anti-war or anything at all.  (Or if it didn’t grow less exciting the more attempts are made to thrill.) It’s a film that’s not thinking about any sort of big picture. It doesn’t see any further than the barrels of its guns. It tries to sell heroism, but seems perversely uninterested in the characters it’s selling as representative of some larger ideal of patriotic machismo or something. The final moments, which shows photos of the actual SEALs killed in this mission, is more moving and respectful than the two hours that came before. It’s a serious subject tackled in a self-defeating manner, utterly lacking the weight it deserves.

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