Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor values brutal blood-soaked violence over character development or thematic substance.
Lone Survivor begins with real documentary footage of intense Navy SEAL training. Images of soldiers pushing their bodies and minds to the absolute limit flash up on the screen, and every moment is more taxing than the last. Many are seen walking down wash-out lane, but there doesn’t appear to be any judgment about their decision. The SEALs are the best of the best and it is a difficult job for even the most hardened of soldiers. Some have what it takes. Some don’t. Them’s the breaks. These opening minutes play like a sort of recruitment video, pulling the viewer in with rugged sexiness while giving pertinent information about the requirements of the job. It’s an apt prelude for the brutality that is about to transpire. Despite a brief interlude featuring a couple of expository characters beats and a mission briefing, Lone Survivor is all war, all the time. Bullets fly, soldiers are ripped to pieces in unflinching detail, and American heroism is honored above all. There isn’t much here that’s not expected; the film’s title gives the game away.
Lone Survivor sits well in a long line of “men on a mission” films. Based on Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson’s book, it tells the true story of four Navy SEALs (Luttrell, Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz, and Matt Axelson) who were deployed on a mission in Afghanistan to capture or kill Taliban leader Amad Shahd. The film is meant to serve as a tribute to their sacrifice, and while the mission itself is covered in blood-soaked detail, there isn’t much to connect to during the proceedings. The SEALs themselves are thinly drawn sketches, with only hints of real characterization brought out by a talented ensemble of four. Mark Wahlberg (Luttrell), Taylor Kitsch (Murphy), Emile Hirsch (Dietz), and Ben Foster (Axelson) are all ideally cast and their natural camaraderie is palpable, but it is all there on the surface with nothing greater underneath. It’s as if these men were born SEALs, with no history, loves, or fears. What details are presented are trivial. The men don’t matter. Only the gory bits of the mission do. But, after two hours of watching them get blown apart with increasingly graphic realism, it leaves you feeling hollow.
There is nothing wrong with a film that wants to unabashedly celebrate our men in uniform, but for too long Hollywood has used that uniform as a crutch in these sorts of pictures. There is a natural emotional attachment to those in service, but to rely on that to carry an entire narrative with no character development is lazy filmmaking. Films like Black Hawk Down were able to get away with that style due to the vastness of the mission being depicted from all angles. But Lone Survivor is only about four men, and the film chooses to focus solely on their exploits. From a structural point of view, this works if your audience deeply cares about the characters they are watching. That just doesn’t happen here (for me) despite committed work from all four of the leads. The film is also so straightforward in its depiction of war that it has little time for ideological discussions, though its one scene of moral ambiguity — where the SEALs debate whether to kill or release three POWs — provides a glimpse of what could have been had the filmmakers been willing to open the picture up.
Let it be said that if the film weren’t so obsessed with its own righteous bloodshed, it would be a sensational action movie. Director Peter Berg certainly knows how to stage adrenaline-fueled violence, and Director of Photography Tobias A. Schliessler captures the white-knuckle tension of war with great ease. The sound design is piercing in its aural array of bombast, and the score by Steven Jablonsky strikes up all the right notes of jingoistic pride. Editing duties fall to Colby Parker Jr. who makes sure to hold on to the most scarring of images to the point of nausea, fully serving Berg’s vision. The crafts are all in place to leave us on the edge of our seat. If only this were a popcorn & milk dud sort of film!
Mark Wahlberg uses his star wattage to anchor the film and put butts in seats. With his name above the title, it’s a forgone conclusion who exactly the “Lone Survivor” will be. There is little surprise here, but there is a lot of pumped-up chest thumping. Peter Berg wants so desperately to celebrate those who gave their life for this country, but he never bothers to ask why they did it or what their sacrifice actually means. Instead he is content to let Lone Survivor be another in a long line of simplistic and exploitative American military films that value high body counts over full-fledged characters, moral quandaries or ethical dilemmas. Our men and women in uniform deserve better than that.