After watching Battleship and Lone Survivor, I have no doubt that director Peter Berg has a deep and earnest respect for America’s military. While one movie is a silly blockbuster and the other is based on a true-story tragedy, they both celebrate the honor and dedication of men and women in uniform. Where I take issue with Berg is how he expresses his adoration of the troops. In Battleship, a movie with aliens, spaceships, and explosive pegs, throwing in an appreciation of sailors is a nice sentiment. In Lone Survivor, appreciation isn’t a sentiment; it’s a cause. Berg’s desire to honor the Navy SEALs who lost their lives on a FUBAR mission is admirable, but the film’s heavy emphasis on action makes physical endurance appear more commendable than deeds and intentions.
In 2005, Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) were sent into Afghanistan on a covert mission to take out a Taliban leader. The four men are hiding in the forest above the Taliban leader’s village when they’re discovered by three goat shepherds. The SEALs capture the shepherds, but are then faced with what to do next. If they let them go, they’ll run to the village, inform the Taliban soldiers, and the retaliation will likely be insurmountable. They can also kill the shepherds outright and “neutralize” the situation (leaving them tied up is the same thing as killing them because they’ll either freeze or be eaten by wolves). Because one of the shepherds is only a boy, they choose to let the group go. Taliban soldiers descend on the SEALs location, a deadly shootout occurs, and Luttrell is the “lone survivor”.
As you can surmise from the title, Lone Survivor is a tragedy. We’re going to get to know a group of guys who will be killed in action. But the movie never lets us know them in any substantive way. At the base, we see they all love their wives/girlfriends, and there’s a brotherhood among all the SEALs. The lead actors have just enough chemistry to present a believable but indistinct bond. It’s a general bond fostered by duty and mutual respect. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of relationship, but it doesn’t give us much sense of the four main characters as individuals beyond Dietz being a little less seasoned and Axelson being a bit of a cold pragmatist. They’re not blank canvases, but they’re far from detailed portraits. Our feelings are for their profession, not the individual.
The cold open features medics trying to resuscitate Luttrell, and then the opening credits are played over real Navy SEAL training footage. These two scenes encapsulate the rest of the picture. It’s about how Luttrell survived, and the toughness demanded of SEALs. These are facts, but Berg can’t translate them into something emotionally resonant. He’s creating a tribute to good men who did something noble and lost their lives as a result. But his tribute consists largely of celebrating the fight rather than the fighters.
Beyond a few cursory details, we never learn much about Luttrell, Murphy, Dietz, Axelson, and their fellow SEALs beyond they’re the toughest sons of bitches to ever walk the Earth. Berg doesn’t rush into the fight, but the most complex character scene is the debate on how to deal with the shepherds. But once that conversation ends and the fight begins, the overriding sensation is dread and adrenaline. They’re doomed, but they’re going out with guns blazing.
To his credit, Berg is in a difficult position of creating an action scene that’s not meant to titillate. And yet his talent as an action director is always threatening to overshadow the gravity of the situation. The centerpiece of the movie is a blaring symphony of bullets and blood. Despite knowing the characters’ fate (although there was one moment I didn’t expect, and it made the story even more painful), Berg manages to wring out every ounce of tension he can from the gunfight. I haven’t read Luttrell’s non-fiction book, but in the movie, the SEALs take an astonishing amount of punishment. One bullet isn’t anywhere near enough to bring them down, and they literally rub dirt in their wounds in order to keep fighting. The conviction and unrelenting brutality makes us feel every hit even if we don’t know much about the person taking the hit.
But he movie’s biggest weakness is also its greatest strength. There’s nothing about Luttrell that made him special. Luttrell survived but it wasn’t because he was “better” than his brothers. He didn’t make a contrary decision. He fought alongside his fellow SEALs, they died, and he didn’t. Events played out to where he managed to escape and cross paths with a kind person from the village. Luttrell survived and it’s a credit to the SEALs that anyone could when you consider the circumstances. The flipside is that the film depicts him and the other members of SEAL Team 10 as an ideal: honorable men beloved by family and friend. As presented in Lone Survivor, they’re nothing more and nothing less.
There’s really no way to criticize a tribute and not sound callous. The intentions are beyond reproach, and to point out any flaws in the tribute would appear to be a cold, unfeeling criticism. Nevertheless, the depiction of the story undermines its importance. Remove the fact that this story actually happened, and it’s just an action movie. Lone Survivor is well made on a technical level, but it derives its strength from a firefight rather than a multi-dimensional portrayal of the men in that firefight. The movie isn’t a hollow tribute, but it is a misguided one.