Has there ever been a more difficult time to make an inspiring American war film? Sure, the Vietnam era had embarrassingly patriotic John Wayne movies crashing onto screens between protest marches, but at least someone like Robert Altman could make a film like M*A*S*H* to compensate. These days, there’s really none of that. Making an anti-Iraq or anti-Afghanistan war film in America will just make you a whipping boy for Fox News morons if you can even get the film made without the involvement of the US military. All of which brings us to Lone Survivor, a white-knuckle action film that also tries to double as an inspiring love letter to the modern soldier. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a movie like that. But in practice with Battleship military porn director Peter Berg in charge, there’s something about the project that just makes you feel icky and used when you walk out of the theater. It’s an interesting movie to review for a game-focused publication because the problems with the film are also the problems with the gaming juggernaut Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare series. Back when COD (and Hollywood) were trotting out WWII epics, there wasn’t much room for moral criticism given that there’s no real cause to support the Nazis and worry about the ethical implications that Nazi-killing media has on its viewer. But set an identical story in Iraq or Afghanistan and things get much trickier. What’s the difference between a Taliban terrorist and a local insurgent who is rather justifiably fighting against US military occupation? It’s tough grey zone and certainly neither Berg nor the folks behind Call Of Duty know how to paint in colors other than black and white.
Lone Survivor is one of those ripped-from-life true stories of military heroism. Mark Wahlberg stars as one of a group of soldiers along with the lines of Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster. We know they’re just good ol’ American boys because we see scenes in which they talk about buying horses for weddings or picking house paint with their girlfriends. They’re just like us, you see. The only difference is that their job is to kill Afghan threats in the desert using the finest military hardware available. After we learn about how peachy keen American these boys are, they’re sent off on a mission to assassinate a Taliban terrorist leader in the mountains. They quickly find their target and set up shop awaiting orders. Then a gang of Afghan goat farmers who might be innocent peasants or might be Taliban supporters stumble onto their hiding hole. The soldiers tie them up and try to get an order from their base as to what to do, but can’t make radio contact in the mountains. The choice comes down to killing possibly innocent men or abandoning them and the mission to avoid unjust murder. As I said before, these are good ol’ boys, so obviously they don’t murder the civilians. Unfortunately they’re also far from their base and without radio contact and wouldn’t yam know it? Those prisoners were dastardly Taliban jerks after all, alerting the hidden terrorists and kicking off a heavily outnumbered firefight against the four American soldiers.
What follows is about an hour of non-stop action, suspense, and turmoil. As an action movie, there’s no denying that it’s all very well and viscerally handled. As a director Peter Berg might rely a little too heavily on shaky cam shenanigans, but he knows how to pace an action sequence breathlessly and can deliver high-impact violence with ease. The film is truly an intense ride that makes an almost physical impact on the audience and it’s backed up by strong acting. Mark Wahlberg suffers from the movie star disease of too often being underrated as an actor, but he delivers some extraordinary work to ground the movie here as does Emile Hirsch who suffers from a similar career misconception. Taylor Kitsch is solid enough that you’ll hope he’ll get another crack at movie stardom after the twin summer movie failures of Battleship and John Carter derailed his career last year. Then of course there is Ben Foster who is one of the greatest actors of his generation and is fascinating to watch in anything. Viewed on a purely technical level, Lone Survivor is an impressive accomplishment. Unfortunately this subject matter can’t and shouldn’t simply be viewed that way.
The film is full stop geared towards the Call Of Duty crowd, with Berg constantly using cross-hair POV shots and night-vision bombing cameras pulled straight out of the game. It’s a movie that exists purely because that franchise created an audience and it’s just as politically uncomfortable as a film as those games can feel. Yes, it’s all very tense and exciting, but the Taliban soldiers are presented as purely evil villains who deserved to be vanquished in a way that feels propagandistic and will make any viewer who thinks outside of a militaristic perspective feel very uncomfortable. Like a COD game, the bad guys are faceless drones who deserve to die and their actions against our heroes are always considered horrendous. Late in the film, Wahlberg does encounter some kindly Afghan citizens, but they are still presented as alien beings that no American soldier could dream of understanding and the way Berg divides the Afghan population into psychopathic villains and saintly heroes with no middle ground is almost as morally reprehensible as if he hadn’t even bothered to show a positive side.
Lone Survivor is a very uncomfortable film to watch for anyone who doesn’t cheer a rah-rah cry of military support without any thought to the other side of modern warfare. Granted the movie is from the perspective of the soldiers who don’t understand that culture, and the fearless heroism with which the actual soldiers depicted in the film gave up their lives is admirable and worthy of praise. However, the way Berg directs the tale is too simplistic to be anything other than propaganda and watching the film for entertainment value is enough to make you feel dirty. It’s a deeply disconcerting blockbuster that just like the COD series is destined to make viewers cheer for as many wrong reasons as right reasons and will act as a bit army recruitment propaganda in a way that just feels manipulative. I wish it were possible to watch Lone Survivor or play Call Of Duty as straight action/adventure experiences because I know they are well done as works of entertainment. The trouble is that the subject is too complex and divisive for that form of simplification and in the end that makes these big blockbusters feel like irresponsible vehicles for entertainment. Maybe it’s just me, but regardless of everything that was done right in Lone Survivor, the whole project feels wrong and I can’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone (especially those already indoctrinated into the COD cult, even if they are beyond help).