LONE SURVIVOR Review: Wheat From Chaff
I do not hail from a traditional “military family,” but my family has proudly served its country in the military. Across several generations, on both maternal and paternal sides, and by blood and marriage, I have relatives who served in all four branches of the United States Armed Forces during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and/or The Gulf War. I am so very fortunate that despite the action they may have seen – in some cases to the degree of being unable to discuss it after returning home – no one was killed or physically injured in battle. I mention all of this as my way of expressing that I understand what it means for loved ones to leave their families and these shores to face death in the name of liberty.
Lone Survivor is a based-on-true-events story of a team of US Navy SEALs whose orders are to drop into the rocky terrain of Afghanistan enemy territory and surveil a small village in hopes of finding Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), a leader and high-value target in the Taliban. The mission is called “Operation Red Wings,” and the four-man SEAL team is led in the field by Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) and consists of Matt Axelson (Ben Murphy), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg). The men make light work of reaching the point where they will be able to recon the village, but a goat herder and his sons happen upon the SEALs, creating a dicey situation.
The options the military men are left with are: kill the herders so they don’t report back to the Taliban; tie the herders to the trees and leave them for dead so they don’t report back to the Taliban; or let the herders go, call the mission a bust, and radio to be extracted. They choose the third option, and no sooner are the herders released, they make a dash for the Taliban village where Shah is located. Unfortunately for our men, technical communications problems and a lack of immediate and sufficient air support keep them trapped on the jagged Afghani hills long enough for the Shah-led Taliban to mount an attack with countless others, leaving the four US military men to face unbelievable odds.
Writer/director Peter Berg makes an interesting choice in his open to Lone Survivor: he uses actual footage of real Navy SEALs-in-training surviving grueling physical and mental rigors to become members of this elite military unit. At first, it seemed to me that Berg’s intent was to illustrate that not only are the SEALs elite, but that they are real, too; that even though you know going into the film the events of the film are based on a true story, here are some faces of actual SEALs to remind you that the dramatization you are about to witness is deeply rooted in fact.
It’s a good thing Berg does this, because the film that follows doesn’t feel real at all. In fact, the film that follows is nothing more than a 21st century video game with a 1980s action/war movie mentality.
The men are written and portrayed in the flattest of terms: SEALs united in a common goal. This very much lends to the video game/’80s movie aspect of the film, where there are good guys and there are bad guys and the good guys need to beat the bad guys and that is all they or you need to know. And that would be okay in your run-of-the-mill, Rambo-esque actioner, but this film is promoted as being more than that. This film is promoted as being about real men, it opens with footage of real men. Yet for a film that is supposed to be a remembrance of four real, four brave men, Berg shares nothing about them that is at all memorable.
Once the obligation of character introduction is met, Berg moves forward to the action sequences, where his inability to direct action sequences becomes woefully evident. The entire second act is a hail of gunfire, again reminiscent of modern war-themed video games and ’80s Vietnam War revenge flicks. But it isn’t even the endlessness of it all that is the issue; it’s how sloppily it’s shot and how poorly it’s framed and how choppily it’s assembled. (Speaking of the ’80s, there is one dreadful shot in particular where the four men must leap off a rock to avoid an impending explosion, and the whole thing looks like A-Team b-roll.)
The entire second act is summed up as a bunch of guys shooting at another bunch of guys and then those guys shooting back, while squibs endlessly pop like money shots in a frenetic orgy of random violence. I don’t shy away from onscreen shoot-em-up/blow-em-ups; I never have. But here there no sense of flow to it at all, and it glaringly shows. Tack on some of the worst dialogue since Chuck Norris‘ dark days onscreen (including the eye-roll-inducing “You can die for your country, I’m gonna live for mine.”) and what you get is a shoddily-directed action flick swaddled in Old Glory.
All is not lost. Proving that even a broken clock is right twice a day, Berg manages to pull off a couple of excellent visuals, including two of the men taking painfully perilous tumbles down steep, rocky embankments, as well as the achingly gradual demise of one of the men, culminating with an enemy bullet to his head. The real treat of the film, though, is Tobias Schliessler‘s cinematography. For all of Berg’s flaws in the countless fast-and-tight shots, he has a great eye for sweeping, wide shots of the Afghanistan terrain and especially massive aircraft approaching vast swatches of land. It’s here he lets Schliessler really shine, and every shot is prettier than the next. I had the chance to see this film on a 60-foot GTX screen and at that size, some of the exteriors were simply breathtaking.
This is not an indictment of Lone Survivor‘s subjects or their actions. Opinions about the theater of battle are best left to cable news and kitchen tables. This is a criticism of art, of the theater of film. When the artist poorly represents the subject, it is critical that the subject be separated from the artist, lest the blurred lines of reality blend with the fog of war to make a mess of history.