We’re so inundated with frantic, rapid fire, Michael Bay-inspired action sequences, where cuts come faster than you can blink, that we expect every film to try to be something people will describe as “high octane.” The combat scenes in Lone Survivor, on the other hand, are almost balletic in comparison. When the fighting that forms the core of the movie begins, it mirrors the training and approach of the quartet of protagonists, four highly-skilled Navy SEALs. They go at their enemy with cool, even steps, years of running drills and scenarios at the helm. Instead of jittery, frenetic edits, you get fluid camerawork and longer takes as they make calculated, deliberate, efficient movements. As the battle progresses, the soldiers take more and more damage, and the situation becomes more precarious. The aesthetic approach also reflects this, becoming choppy, more scattered, chaotic, and intense.
Director Peter Berg is so much more emotionally connected to what he puts on screen in Lone Survivors than his last outing, the bloated board game adaptation Battleship. He wanted to make this film first, but the studio insisted he squeeze out that turd first, and it shows. This is the kind of film he can make when he actually gives a crap, a powerful, if flawed, story of war, brotherhood, and duty.
A modern war movie walks a fine line. On one hand, if you go too rah-rah patriotic, USA number one, fuck everyone else, you risk alienating fair part of the audience, not to mention putting a damper on the increasingly lucrative international box office. That shit don’t play over seas. On the other hand, if you skew too far the other way, your film comes off as a tired, preachy political screed, and you turn off just as many, if not more, potential viewers.
And that’s the strange thing about Lone Survivors, that it happens almost in a vacuum. This is not a film about war, it is a film about men, bonded together like family. Berg, who adapted the screenplay from Marcus Luttrell’s memoir of the same name, goes to great lengths to keep the film as apolitical as possible. The enemies are faceless and generic; the heroes are handsome and equally one-dimensional. They may have complicated feelings, but in the end, they’ll make the right choice, since they are, after all, idyllically heroic. Even the look adds to the out-of-time nature of the film. If they didn’t say Afghanistan, this could be anywhere in the world, even the US.
Berg makes the choice to focus on the band of brothers/war is hell side of the equation. Lone Survivor is about these specific men in this specific moment. What came before, what comes after, and the larger context of it all isn’t particularly important. Sure they all have outside lives that are referenced on occasion, but that’s relatively unimportant until the film starts trying to coerce tears out of your eyes. You can appreciate the sentiment that drove such a decision, but military issues and America’s current conflicts figure so prevalently in your daily lives that removing this element is damn near impossible, and the result creates a strange floating feel for the entire movie.
Working within these confines, the performances from the four main characters are solid, and everyone has their one defining characteristic. Mark Wahlberg’s Luttrel is as good as he’s been since “The Fighter.” Ben Foster’s Matt Axelson only cares about his brothers; not Afghani civilians, not the rules laid out by those pencil-pushing bureaucrats in command, nothing but these men around him. Taylor Kitsch plays the leader of their cell. He has a fiancé and, even stuck in Afghanistan, is planning a wedding. Emile Hirsh rounds out their cadre as they attempt to execute their mission to take down a ruthless local warlord.
There are near fetish levels of body horror going on here, as Berg luxuriates in every gaping wound and bullet hole, pummeling his cast beyond any possible human boundaries. Luttrell goes over a cliff no less than three times in Lone Survivor, each slow motion impact catalogued by Berg’s camera. And you don’t even want to start on the close ups as Luttrell picks shards of metal out of his mutilated leg. Berg adores these men—that much is readily apparent—but spends the bulk of Lone Survivor stripping the flesh from their bodies.
For a movie that wears words like bravery and honor like badges, a movie that wallows in the idea of self-sacrifice, the most heroic person in Lone Survivor isn’t who you expect. Broken, beaten, alone, and on the verge of giving up, an Afghani villager, a man with a small son, steps in to save Luttrell when he needs it the most. This man, this stranger whose name you don’t even know until the end of the movie, honors his own code despite the fact that it means that he, his family, and his entire village, are now at risk. By aiding Luttrell, a man he has no reason to help, be basically declares open war on the Taliban. This part of the actual story, but aside from serving as an important shift in the plot, it is wasted from a thematic perspective.
Berg could have tied Luttrell’s rescue into the larger isolationist theme, using it to illustrate the idea of duty and honor and doing the right thing regardless of sides. This could fit in perfectly with what the film and the SEALs talk about the entire movie, about doing the right thing no matter the consequences, but that aspect is glossed over almost entirely. A pair of Luttrell voiceovers bookend Lone Survivor, and in the final one he states that part of him died in that day, but that he ultimately lived because of the sacrifices of his brothers. That is certainly true, he would not have survived on his own, but it completely ignores the fact that this man, this stranger, compelled by a similar sense of obligation, stood up for what he believed in against great odds. This could have even expanded the brotherhood idea, spreading it beyond this one small group, making an ultimate case for a universal camaraderie, and tying up what Berg is trying to accomplish. Instead this is a thread is left dangling, and is another element that leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling as you walk out of Lone Survivor.