Lone Survivor Shows Our Boys Suffering but Doesn't Ask Why
Here's a movie that'll flop in Kabul. Lone Survivor, the latest by Battleship director Peter Berg, is a jingoistic snuff film about a Navy SEAL squadron outgunned by the Taliban in the mountainous Kunar province. After four soldiers — played with muscles and machismo by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster — get ID'd by Afghan goat herders, they're in a race to climb to the top of the nearest summit and summon an airlift before these civilians can sprint to the nearest village and alert local leader Ahmad Shah. It doesn't go well.
Berg's flick bleeds blood red, bone-fracture white, and bruise blue. It's based on the memoir Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 by sole evacuee Marcus Luttrell (played by Wahlberg) — and that's a spoiler only if you've ignored the title. Luttrell didn't exactly write his book. Rather than sitting in front of a word processor, he was back in action in Iraq. Instead, the United States Navy hired British novelist Patrick Robinson, who, among other embellishments, upped the number of enemy Taliban fighters from ten to 200. Hey, whatever, man. Those aliens in Battleship weren't real either.
Lone Survivor's problems are more complex than its Rambo-esque exuberance for machine-gun fire. The near-wordless second half is a deadly dubstep of bullets and snare drums punctuated with the occasional curse. Here's 90 seconds of dialogue transcribed in its entirety: "Goddamn, this sucks!" "Fuck you!" "Fuck!" "Damn, fucking burns!" This doesn't help advance the plot, which can pretty much be summed up as: Don't die. And the film actually gets worse when the guys open their mouths.
These four men were heroes. But these heroes were also men. As the film portrays them, their attitudes toward the incredibly complex War on Terror — fought hillside by bloody hillside on the Afghan frontier with both U.S. and Taliban forces contributing to an unconscionably high civilian body count — were simple: Brown people bad, American people good. When the guys debate whether to kill the three goat herders who've stumbled upon their hiding place — a dilemma that, morality aside, could have been solved if any of them had recalled that middle school logic problem about the fox, the chicken, the feed, and the too-small boat — Foster grabs an unarmed teenager by the face and insists, "That's death. Look at death." And when the firefight starts, he bellows, "You can die for your country — I'm going to live for mine."
We're meant to cheer, not that anyone in my theater did. But there will be audiences that do, and I'm not entirely sure I'm comfortable with what they're cheering for. This is death. Look at death.
Berg is no dummy. He's done the right thing by refusing to whitewash these guys as saints, although three of the four are depicted as devoted husbands and fiancés, and the fourth gets to be Mark Wahlberg. And Berg is justified in hoisting these guys up as real-life action stars, building his case with an opening montage of actual Navy SEAL training footage in which screaming instructors winnow a pack of athletes into an all-for-one-one-for-all band of badass brothers who, when forced to float in freezing ocean waves, link arms and sing "Silent Night."
They were ready for action. "We wanted that fight at the highest volume," Wahlberg says, "the loudest, coldest, darkest, most unpleasant of the unpleasant fights." OK, but did the local villagers whom we see get caught in the crossfire want that fight? Each, like Wahlberg's Luttrell, had families and friends and a full life, and each gets dispatched without a second thought.
I'd like to think that, on some level, Berg is questioning the sense of a film — and a foreign policy — that makes target practice of our magnificent teams of hard-bodied, hairy-chested, rootin'-tootin', shootin', parachutin', double-cap-crimpin' frogmen, these soldiers who decorate their bunks with baby pictures of themselves next to an American flag and are so nobly eager to sacrifice their lives for one another and their country. But the ammo doesn't stop blasting long enough for their deaths to have weight. Instead, Lone Survivor just reads like a quasi-political exaggeration of a slasher film: the cell phones that don't work, the rescuers just out of reach, the killers chasing our victims through the woods.
What are we meant to learn from this waste of life? Who is even to blame? All Lone Survivor offers is the queasiest apology of the year. Grunts a battered Wahlberg to his even more-battered best buddy: "I'm sorry that we didn't kill more of these motherfuckers." Replies his fellow soldier: "Oh, don't be fucking sorry. We're going to kill way more of them."
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.