Thursday, January 16, 2014

Movie Review: Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor
Directed by:  Peter Berg.
Written by: Peter Berg based on the book by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg (Marcus Luttrell), Taylor Kitsch (Michael Murphy), Emile Hirsch (Danny Dietz), Ben Foster (Matt 'Axe' Axelson), Yousuf Azami (Shah), Ali Suliman (Gulab), Eric Bana (Erik Kristensen), Alexander Ludwig (Shane Patton), Rich Ting (James Suh), Dan Bilzerian (Healy), Jerry Ferrara (Hasslert).

In many ways, Lone Survivor is an old fashioned war movie – one that doesn’t tackle any questions or politics or why American soldiers are fighting and dying in Afghanistan, but simply accepts them as heroic and on the side of good. I am somewhat surprised it has taken Hollywood this long to make this movie – even something as awful as Act of Valor from two years ago, with no stars, made quite a bit of money – proving if nothing else that there is a market for this type of no-nonsense approach to the various Middle East conflicts America has been embroiled in for more than a decade now. Lone Survivor doesn’t question the politics that went into sending troops over in the first, and doesn’t really examine the morality of the choices that have been made since then. This film is completely black and white – the Americans are the good guys, the Taliban are the bad guys and that’s it. Personally, I prefer a little more complexity in movies like this – and if you’ve read Marcus Luttrell’s book about the subject you know there was more complexity to this story. Not so much in the questions of “right and wrong” – but in how the soldiers behaved. In Luttrell’s book, they came across as real men who fought and died for their country – ones who had moments of weakness or doubt, but still managed to do everything they could to survive, right up until the end. Lone Survivor does not give the soldiers the same complexity. For nearly its entire running time, it has the four men at its core embroiled in a long gunfight with the Taliban – and director Peter Berg wants you to feel every bullet wound they sustain, or the pain they feel at various times when they have to essentially jump of a mountain cliff and hope they stop before they die. There is a kind of fetishism that Berg portrays the level of violence in the movie that made, quite frankly, uncomfortable in the movie theater.

The movie stars Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell – the lone survivor of the title. The film details Operation Red Wings where Luttrell and three other Navy SEALs – Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) were sent into the mountains near an Afghan village to try and identify a Taliban leader – Ahmad Shah – who was to be captured and killed. They are to confirm he’s there, and then call in for support. Things are going okay – communication with the base is spotty in the Afghan mountains, but they knew they would be – until the shepherds – two teenagers and an old man – stumble across their position. They have a walkie-talkie on them – so the Americans know they are at least associated with the Taliban. The four Americans tie up the shepherds before they can communicate with Shah and his men below – but now face a moral quandary. They can leave the men tied up – which will probably mean death for them as it’s unlikely anyone will find them. They can kill them, which is forbidden by the rules of engagement since they are unarmed civilians, or they can let them go – knowing full well if they do, the first thing they’ll do is run to the village and tell the Taliban about four Americans hiding in the mountains. They make the right moral decision – to let them go – thinking they’ll be able to get in contact with their base and be extracted without too many problems from the Taliban. They were wrong.

Almost the entirety of the movie is made up of what happens the next. The Taliban come storming up the mountain to kill the Americans, who first climb up to try to get in contact with the base for re-enforcements, and then are forced back down by the Taliban. It is essentially an hour long firefight that takes up most of the movie. The Americans are obviously more highly trained and skilled – I lost track fairly quickly of how many enemy combatants they kill – but the Taliban has dozens of men coming after them. All four me sustain countless injuries, but keep on heroically battling until they are simply overwhelmed. Almost like a horror movie, one-by-one, they are overtaken and killed – sometimes in slow motion – by the Taliban.

It was the slow motion that bothered me more than anything else about Lone Survivor. I’ve never been a fan of slow motion in the first place – I think unless used properly and sparingly, it looks incredibly cheesy. The use of slow motion in Lone Survivor reminded me of the way Mel Gibson used it in The Passion of Christ – to linger over every lashing, every drop of blood being spilled. It is true that the real soldiers sustained numerous wounds during the firefight – and I do think that director Peter Berg could have and should have showed us that. But I think the use of the slow motion that forces us to linger over some of the details of physical pain and torment were too much. It took me out of the movie, instead of having the visceral impact intended, these scenes simply felt exploitive to me. Like Gibson’s movie, which seemed to think the most important think about Jesus Christ was how much pain he endured and not why he endured it, the characters in Lone Survivor at a certain point stop being human beings, fighting heroically for their lives and country, and simply become flayed pieces of meat in the film – as if they pain they endured was the most important thing about them and their actions.

There are other problems in the film – mainly that I think the film misses a huge opportunity by not more closely examining the character of Gulab, played by the immensely talented Ali Suliman – an Afghan civilian who saved Luttrell’s life. What he does is every bit as heroic – if not more so – than what the American soldiers did, but he is pretty much shunted off to the side in the film – never given much to do.

Lone Survivor is the type of movie that makes me glad I no longer give out star ratings to movies – because in all honesty, I don’t know what I would give it. The use of slow motion and the nearly fetishized level of bloodletting and pain bothered me a lot while watching the movie. But I also have to say, that given their limited chance to be realistic human beings instead of heroic symbols, the four main actors all do a surprisingly good job – especially Ben Foster, who has grown a lot as an actor over the past few years since he realized he was talented enough to not make his every character a bundle of nervous ticks. And when Berg doesn’t resort to slow motion or over emphasized the level of pain and blood, the firefight that takes up much of the film is actually really well done. He doesn’t achieve what Ridley Scott did in Black Hawk Down – but he shows some of the same skills. Berg is a talented director of action – and he shows it here.

But I also think at some point along the way, Berg lost track of why he was doing the movie. His respect and admiration for these men shows in the movie – from the opening montage of real Navy SEALs in training, to the extended sequence before the end credits that salutes the real life men who lost their lives, I think his respect is clear and undeniable. But by focusing so much on the way the men died – and how much torment their heroically endured – and not showing us the men as real men – who had moments of fear and doubt on that mountain, I’m not sure the movie is as stirring a tribute as Berg intended it to be. Does it glamorize war? Yes – and more than that, it glamorizes dying in war in the same way that a movie like 300 (another film that overuses slow motion to fetishize the violence) does. As one character says in the movie “You can die for your country, I want to live for mine”. This is the story of four men who fought like hell for each other, so they could all live. But Berg seems more interested in how they died than anything else.

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