Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Lone Survivor Movie Review

I think when Marcus Luttrell complains that he doesn’t understand how people could possibly say Lone Survivor, the movie based on his memoir, glorifies war because “there is nothing glorious about war,” he is missing the point. Due respect to Luttrell – he’s been to Afghanistan, watched his friends die, and was incredibly lucky to come out alive, but saying that a Hollywood movie glorifies something is not the same as saying that that something is glorious. No doubt being in war is terrible beyond words. That’s why veterans tend not to talk about the experience of war outside the context of the buddies they made and the stories they told and created. But a movie can make that experience seem, to the uninitiated, sexy, desirable, exciting, fulfilling, and yes, glorious. There’s an extent to which all films that depict war are inherently pro-war. You can’t show an image of something without tacitly endorsing what it represents. Whether or not Lone Survivor goes out of its way to glorify war or whether it is a form of war porn I’m not sure. Does the level of realism make it more or less responsible?


Peter Berg wrote and directed the movie after fulfilling a contractual obligation to Universal by filming the odious Battleship so that they would finance this pet project. He read Luttrell’s memoir, which covers his first days in the military all the way through an Afghanistan mission gone awry in which three comrades were killed after the four of them were cornered on a mountain by overwhelming enemy forces. By all accounts, it’s about as factually accurate a portrayal of what happened to those four men, all Navy SEALS out to capture and kill a Taliban leader in the mountains.

During the mission, they come into contact with three goat herders (an old man and two teenagers) whom the rules of engagement dictate they can’t kill. A brief debate among the men serves up three possibilities: turn them loose so they can inform the Taliban at the base of the mountain; tie them up leaving them exposed to wolves and freezing overnight temperatures; kill them. No option is appealing, but they do what they think is right and, sure as you know, the four SEALS are eventually overrun and outgunned. The three SEALS who lost their lives are played by Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, and Tailor Kitsch. Mark Wahlberg is the face of the movie as Luttrell and Eric Bana adds some additional star power as their commanding officer at base.

What follows is just about the most harrowing and tension-filled battle sequence since Steven Spielberg restaged the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan. Bullets whiz by, some finding their marks, and they take tumble after tumble down rock-lined mountainsides, breaking bones and twisting joints along the way. The situation seems hopeless. And they know it is. But taking Luttrell’s own memoir as the basis for the story, Berg’s screenplay insists on following the through line of the never-say-die attitude of the SEALS. This is less a story of war than of soldiers as brothers who fight, not against any tribal group or national army, but for one another, defending each other to the death. Even as we know, and they must recognize, that survival is not remotely possible, Luttrell  and his comrades talk and fight as if escape is not only possible, but inevitable.

The jingoistic patriotism is laid on a little unreasonably thick at times, especially early on. Granted, this is a movie specifically designed to honor the brotherhood of the military. But listening to speeches expressing the pride of being a SEAL and professions of sacrifice, duty, and honor in the heat of battle wear thin and a little bit false. This is Sands of Iwo Jima with more blood, bullets, and explosions. Even if this movie may not be pro-war, it is fiercely pro-American. I felt uncomfortable watching propaganda style images of the Taliban beheading someone at the beginning of the film. Not that I think the Taliban have gotten a bad rap in the West, but these images prime an audience that is likely already ratcheted up to be even more protective of America and unable to distinguish between an Afghan farmer and a Taliban militant. That early scene is meant to set up an understanding for something that nearly happens to Luttrell late in the film, but the close ups of the Taliban and their maniacal eyes effectively serve one purpose: to make Americans grit their teeth and mutter about the depravity and inhumanity.

However, the story takes an unexpected turn when Luttrell is aided in his survival by a group of villagers. It all seems so cliché, so unbelievable to the point of farce that I thought it must have been embellished or even added for effect. But then the closing credits reveal a moving photo of the real Marcus Luttrell meeting with his Afghan savior years after the fact. Berg redeems himself by depicting Afghani villagers in this light, but I was rather unimpressed with the monolithically brutal view of the enemy. Although it’s easy to imagine American soldiers not having a very subtle or discerning view of them. Perhaps I’m really complaining because those opening images are from an omniscient point of view while the entirety of the story and the particulars of the rest of the film are essentially Luttrell’s recollection. One other exception, and a moment that took me right out of the film, was Berg’s choice to subtitle a conversation between a Taliban and the villager who saved Luttrell. No other Afghani dialogue is subtitled. If Luttrell doesn’t know what they’re saying, neither should we.

Judging the movie on the merits of whether or not it accomplishes what it sets out to do, you can hardly find a great deal of fault in what is actually a well-executed film, even if it is lacking in significant style. The screenplay could do more to flesh out who these guys are before they go into hell, but was able to forgive it these minor issues so long as Berg kept subverting war film conventions. Just when you think you’re settling in to one of those action movie cliché conversations that make you wonder if the enemy has taken a time out, Berg pulls the rug out from under us, reminding us of the ever-present threat all around these guys. As the proverbial cavalry comes rushing in with helicopters to save the day, we cheer along with Luttrell and the others until tragedy strikes and we’re confronted with the direct knowledge that our military – perhaps foolishly to some – sacrifices far too much for the good of the few. The whole movie has that push pull, constantly wanting to be the old classic war movie depicting how awesome America is, but also wanting to fit the mold of the new millennium that presents are more worldly view. It’s a dichotomy that Berg doesn’t always pull off successfully, but the emotional core of the film is solid and engaging.

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