After a year in which I slacked off a bit on my film reviews, my New Year's Resolution for 2014 was to see and write about at least one new film every week. On the plus side, I'm hoping this discipline will force me to give more films a chance (and help me avoid the three-films-a-day binge I inevitably end up doing in November and December to try and catch up). On the minus side, of course—and particularly in these fallow winter months, when the choices are few—it will mean committing to writing about a number of films I otherwise might not even choose to see.
I confess that Lone Survivor—the new film from director Peter Berg—falls on the minus side of that equation for me. I'm as big a fan of war movies as it is probably possible for a lefty, liberal, bookish, pacifistically-minded pussy to be, but Lone Survivor fails to satisfy. It's not that it's a bad war movie; it's just that it's barely a movie at all.
Based on a real incident that took place in Afghanistan in 2005, Lone Survivor tells the story of a four-man SEAL reconnaissance team (Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster) inserted into the mountain forest above a small village in the Kunar Province. Their mission is to provide positive identification of a high-ranking Taliban target named Ahmad Shah, and all goes smoothly—until some Afghan civilians stumble upon their operation. Do they let the civilians go—and risk their warning the Taliban—or do they violate the rules of engagement (and morality) and execute the prisoners? The SEALs make their decision, and soon find themselves hopelessly outnumbered in the middle of a major firefight—one from which (as the spoilerific title suggests) only one of them will return.
Make no mistake, this battle—which occupies most of the film—is gripping. Berg has a very gritty, realistic approach to filmmaking, and the combat scenes are suitably tense, taut, and horrific. Lone Survivor begins with footage of real Navy SEAL training, including a lot of talk about how the men are trained to push themselves past what they think they can possibly endure. To the extent that the filmhas a theme or agenda, it seems simply to honor this rigor and fortitude: the punishment these men endure—which includes cuts, multiple gunshot wounds, shrapnel wounds, broken bones, and repeated falls down rocky mountain cliffs—is impressively, almost unbelievably intense. And the stoic way in which they take their beatings—and keep on fighting—is admirable; though there is the occasional unfortunate venture into gung-ho glorification, Berg mostly shows us serious, professional men without vanity or self-aggrandizement. ("That sucked," one says—in gross understatement—after the team gets the shit kicked out of them.)
So the problem with Lone Survivor is not to be found in the battle scenes themselves. (My only critique of them is that I wish Berg were not quite so fond of super slow-motion, which he not only overutilizes but often uses prematurely: the slow-mo tends to kick in right before something bad happens, which tends to telegraph imminent death and disaster in a way that dispels more suspense than it creates.) No, the problem with the film is that this lengthy battle sequence is all there is: neglecting to build a truly engaging story around the slaughter, Lone Survivor is a war movie that's all war, no movie.
Part of the problem is the characterization—or lack thereof. While we get a few shallow scenes of the boys joking around back at camp, and the occasional bits of simplistic fraternal dialogue between them in the field, the four SEALs remain largely non-entities; indistinguishable by their personalities, it's only by their famous faces that we can tell them apart. We hear a lot of talk about brotherhood, and about how much they love each other, but we don't feel it: Berg does not invest either the time or effort into letting us know them, let alone in making us share the emotional bond we are told they share with each other. (It's a major problem, and one that is not helped by the fact that we not only know three of them will die, but can more or less predict which three, and in what order. It does not inspire emotional investment, and makes Lone Survivor feel at times like the military version of a B-movie slasher flick, in which we're just waiting for the next inevitable victim to fall.)
And Lone Survivor is as disinterested in politics as it is in personalities. Berg is not concerned with the larger subject of the war itself—let alone its morality—and he is not even overly concerned with the strategic importance of this operation. ("He's a bad guy," we are told, of Ahmed Shah, and—while I don't doubt the assessment—this is sadly typical of the deliberately simplistic approach to this material.) God knows we need more art to focus on this largely forgotten war America is fighting, but Lone Survivor could be about any war: in neither its content nor its texture do we feel Berg has any special understanding of, or insight into, this particular war. (This might not be a problem, but neither does he seem to have anything to say about war in general—except that, gosh, soldiers sure are tough bastards.)
There is something understandable—perhaps even honorable—in Berg's decision to focus so narrowly on the microcosmic experience of men in combat, but there is also something unsophisticated and disingenuous about the final product. Lone Survivor is a film in which the traumas and sacrifices of battle are almost completely divorced from both emotional and political context. (In the third act, the titular lone survivor is aided by some Pasthun villagers, which was an opportunity to tell us something about the country these soldiers are in and the people they're supposedly fighting for. Unfortunately—even more so than with the underwritten Americans—these villagers remain clumsy plot devices, not actual people; even the motivation for their kindness is left for an overly simplistic title card at the end.)
Berg simply isn't interested in exploring the ethics of the war, or the interaction of cultures, or even—despite shallow feints in that direction—the emotional bond between real soldiers. What's left, then, is just a bunch of impressive and punishing action sequences, which make us feel little and make us think even less. Absent any larger context or genuine emotional engagement, Lone Survivor comes perilously close to being recruitment propaganda, or combat porn, or some particularly dangerous combination of the two.