Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: Lone Survivor

This is a tough one, so promise to hear me out.

Maybe I can't have an opinion on Peter Berg's latest movie, Lone Survivor, based on Marcus Luttrell's book. This movie was not made for me. This movie was made for the men and women of the armed forces, as it is a tribute to them that's ultimately concerned with getting every detail right -- not just of the mission that ultimately went wrong, but of the way they speak, interact, follow protocol, everything. Berg is in love with the military, and Lone Survivor is a love letter told in fetishistic detail.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Luttrell, one of four Navy SEALS deployed on Operation Red Wings, a failed 2005 attempt to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah during the war in Afghanistan. Shortly after dropping onto a mountain, the team (also consisting of Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsh and Ben Foster) comes under attack and has to fight off a small army of Taliban fighters. If you are unsure how it turns out, look no further than the title.

I find myself in a terrible position talking about this movie, as it is impossible to be critical of Lone Survivor and not sound like I am being critical of the real-life men who died in the mission or the military at large. I am not. They -- like everyone in the military -- have my utmost respect. My unease with the movie is only in the telling, not in what is being told.
I just don't know what movie this is supposed to be. Perhaps it's the marketing to which I'm objecting, which keeps positioning the movie as an inspirational story of bravery and heroism (even the one sheet sells it as "Based on True Acts of Courage"). To me it's a tragedy. These men should not have died. A lot of people die on both sides, in fact, and for what? This is not me questioning the war in Afghanistan. That's a different conversation. What I'm saying is that the way Lone Survivor is being marketed is very different than the movie that exists.

What is it that Berg wants to achieve? I assume it's to tell as large a population as possible (and it is a large population; the movie grossed a stunning $38 million its opening weekend) what happened during Operation Red Wing. Luttrell himself has said that more people will see the movie than will ever read his book. My issue is that Berg treats it all like an action movie procedural, focusing more on the bullets that are fired than on the people firing them. I can understand a version of Lone Survivor that truly tries to put a human face on the three Americans who fought and died on that mountain in 2005. They deserve it. But aside from a few quick lines that attempt to sketch them out (like how Hirsch, playing Danny Dietz, is preoccupied with choosing paint colors), the movie makes little attempt to get to know its characters. It prefers the mission.
And therein lies more stickiness, because as Truffaut once said, it's impossible to make an anti-war film without making war look exciting. Berg certainly attempts to strip away some of the romanticism -- the firefights feel dangerous and terrifying, and the combat is brutal (there are multiple falls down the side of a mountain that look like the most painful thing you've ever seen). But he also can't help shooting it like an action movie, so we get the cool guitar score by Explosions in the Sky (a Berg favorite since Friday Night Lights) and our heroes get lots of slow motion moments. While the Taliban remain faceless bodies who burst into squibs when shot, the SEALS get slow motion Terrence Malick "movie" deaths. For all of Lone Survivor's attempts to create harrowing, realistic combat (in its best moments recalling the opening of Saving Private Ryan), it still insists on presenting war as cinematic. Not exciting, but cinematic.

Lone Survivor is a well-made movie. The cast is strong and Berg is a very talented filmmaker. But he has made a film that feels confused, as his obsession with the military (and if you don't believe me, just watch how he turned the board game movie Battleship into crazy armed forces porn) can sometimes cloud the choices he makes. For the people that need this movie -- those who have fought in wars or have lost loved ones in combat -- I'm glad it exists. The rest of us may not get out of it what Berg wants; part docudrama, part propaganda piece, Lone Survivor tells the sad account of 19 American and countless Afghani deaths as an action movie much more concerned with the "what" than the "who."

14 comments:

Erich said...

Another chance to recommend people watch Restrepo and Hell and Back Again instead.

Unknown said...

Your review makes it sound a little like Scott's "Black Hawk Down". (a film that I think is pretty great, though makes me somewhat sick to my stomach to watch) Though I have much more respect for Ridley Scott, his body of work and what he was doing in that particular film than I do for Berg's efforts to this point. I do plan on checking this film out at some point as I think I am partially in its intended audience. I remember reading about these men in the newspaper back in 2005. About Lt. Michael Murphy and his sacrifice. And I don't use the word "sacrifice" jingoistically as it sometime is, but literally.

Patrick Bromley said...

I thought Black Hawk Down was an incredibly effective movie when I saw it back in the theater. I have never been able to watch it since.

I think the movie is worth seeing, especially if you have an interest in the subject. I know that Peter Berg means well. And as much as he's the perfect guy for the job, I'm just not sure he was the right guy for the job.

Sol said...

Nice delicately-worded review Patrick - good job being honest whilst giving due respect. I think we're probably quite alike politically and you both affirmed my decision not to see this in theatres, but at the same time made me more likely to watch it at some point down the road.

I've only watched Black Hawk Down a couple of times but for some reason I really like it - sickening story but love the movie's style and it's got a great cast. It was one I had basically blacklisted at the time as a propaganda film (which I don't think it is) but glad I changed my mind.

Patrick Bromley said...

Thanks, Sol. It was a difficult line to walk.

Black Hawk Down is more intense than I can handle most days, but it was mostly the leg surgery scene that's kept me away for years.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

I think Sol that the reasons you like Black Hawk Down are because it was made by Ridley Scott. Aside from his incredible eye for cinematography, but also because he made it, it is is a procedural human condition piece. Rather than a propaganda film such as if a someone like Michael Bay or his ilk made it. I hesitate to add, Tony Scott's version of "Black Hawk Down" might have played differently, that Ridley's.

I don't know how you guys see Ridley Scott's work but for me R. Scott ranks somewhere on my mental list of favorite living directors.

Sol said...

Yeah, I think you're right Tom and he's absolutely one of my favourite living directors - even a heavily-flawed movie like Prometheus I find very watchable and, though I haven't seen The Counselor (and the reviews aren't great) it was one of the best LOOKING trailers I saw all year. He's had a hit-and-miss career but I always expect great things from him.

Gaith said...

As an active-duty Navy Sailor (of the paper-pushing domestic secretarial variety, who hasn't set foot on so much as a commuter ferry since before Boot Camp), Patrick, thanks for the respect for us military folks. I know expressing that sentiment can seem trite these days, when many Americans most often see/are reminded of "the troops" in a shot or two from some HMO or truck commercial, but I'm pretty sure I speak for most of us when I say we always appreciate it.

It's weird how January has sort of become SEAL Movie Month. In '12 there was Act of Valor, in '13 there was Zero Dark Thirty, and now there's this in '14. I wonder how this skews the perception of the military among the general public, as (I'm pretty certain) most service members never see combat or are ever shot at during their careers. (Of course, this counts everyone on ships, and those in the Coast Guard, etc.)

That said, I'm not at all sure that anyone "needs" this movie; If I had a brother or similar loved one killed in Afghanistan, I can't imagine how seeing the extended scenes of carnage would be any kind of balm. I'm reminded of Lions for Lambs, which is really a pretty dumb flick (co-starring Peter Berg, incidentally), but at least it had a clear point of view, however weak-sauce (see Dana Stevens' excellent review). I'm sure Berg's intentions here were noble, but to what end? An action war movie that's neither fun nor profound?

I'd like to see the build-up to the mission scenes, for their portrayal of a certain subset of Navy culture I'll almost certainly never even come close to personally, but I'll pass on the rest.

Patrick Bromley said...

Thanks, Gaith. I think by "needs" the movie, I just meant that it's hopefully helpful or cathartic to see a movie that at least wants to honor the lives of some soldiers that died in action. I don't imagine it would be a fun experience for them to watch (for reasons you mention), but maybe it helps to know it's out there?

Adam Riske said...

Everyone should watch The Counselor. Not sure if it was the intention but it works as a black comedy.

Heath Holland said...

I second (or third or fourth) what everyone has said here. Great job navigating this land mine.

Fantastic Mr. Hank said...

Yeah, I felt just as underwhelmed and unsatisfied with this movie as well, but it could also be just me, while I thought the movie was mediocre at best, my wife who watched the movie with me rather enjoyed it!

Fantastic Mr. Hank said...

See? this is why I don't think this movie is gonna do very well in the box office, there is simply no audience for it, the civilians have little interest in the pseudo-realism of the film while veterans generally do not wish to relive the experience again.