Review of Peter Berg's "Lone Survivor"

Lone Survivor  ★½

The easiest way to sum up Peter Berg's Lone Survivor is to say that it is a jingoistic militarization of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. An excessively loud, violent, and exploitative piece of cinema that is nearly devoid of artistic merit.

It's one thing to have a fictional character like John Rambo mow down dozens of Burmese soldiers in a gruesome final act that lasts several minutes. We know the situation is false and unrealistic. We are conscience of the fact that Rambo is an over-the-top American action hero who does ridiculous things. Similarly, we enjoy going to see the latest slasher horror film or having a Friday the 13th marathon on Halloween. It's acceptable for those films to linger on the death of their characters because they aren't real people and it's not played for realism or to send us a message. It plays on the dark parts of our minds that find enjoyment in being scared or grossed out in a controlled setting where we know everyone is actually ok.

But much like the torture porn sub-genre of horror films, the level of brutality shown in this film does nothing to add to its impact. Its only purpose is to heavy-handedly shove down our throats the horrible real-life situation these Navy SEALs found themselves in and, quite franky, I find it offensive and dishonorable for their sacrifice to be treated in such a manner. Showing the brutality of the battlefield of war has been done in other films. Saving Private Ryan is well known for it's opening scene which shows the landing of Allied troops on the beaches of Normandy and the subsequent hell they endured as German forces reigned machine gun fire down on them. What Steven Spielberg's far superior film does not do, however, is linger visually longer than needed on personal moments of gore, pain, and imminent death. It's a razor thin line to walk to be sure but Spielberg manages it while Berg is too busy figuring out how to show you how deep the razor cuts. Consider the scene in Saving Private Ryan where the medic Wade, played by Giovanni Ribisi, is shot through the liver and is being held by his brothers in arms while dying. This scene is more horrifying and sad than anything that occurs in Lone Survivor because the actors and camera sell the situation without having to show Wade's wounds just for the sake of showing them. In fact, Wade is shot off-screen and you only see the aftermath.

Even the sound design is oppressive. Gunshots sound like they are from the latest Call of Duty video game and when the SEALs roll down a cliff side and hit trees you'd think you were listening to a linebacker smashing into a running back while mic'd up during an NFL game.

Taking such a harsh and clumsy approach to this story puts the viewer in the position of being made to feel like they are being given a guilt trip. Much like the Passion Plays whose goal is to reinforce through guilt the devotion of followers by reminding them of the intense brutality Jesus suffered for them; Berg wants to drag patriotism out of you by backing you into a corner with repeated savage imagery. That imagery reminds me of Gibson's film for more reasons than just the violence and includes Mark Wahlberg's character coming back from being dead on the operating table to complete the rebirth of the savior after going through intense bodily tortures.

I also have to admit that I was bothered throughout the film by the decision the SEALs make early on that ultimately lead to their being pursued by the Taliban. Is this really the decision that was made? Wasn't there a better option? Personally of the three given, I'd have gone with "terminating the compromise" as harsh as that may seem. You are at war. You're going to risk the security of your immediate fellow soldiers, your mission, and other soldiers in the future by just letting these three captives (whom you strongly suspect are allied with your enemy) just run back to the camp you're right on top of? Killing them outright seems more humane then the possible last option which is leaving them tied up to possibly freeze to death or be eaten by wolves. How about this option: tie up two of the captives, take the third with you until you are back within communications range (which appeared to be only an hour or so away), and then set the third loose to untie the other two once help is on the way? Nobody is killed and only the mission is lost.

The actors all perform admirably. Mark Wahlberg, much like Matt Damon, has grown into an actor who rarely missteps even when appearing in a film that doesn't succeed. I also appreciated the fact that other Afghani characters came into play later in the film other than stereotypical action film villains. That's not to say I am sympathetic in any way towards the Taliban or think they should be treated with a delicate hand; but to turn them into your bargain-basement glowering baddie in a film that's trying to push realism stinks of taking the easy way out.

In the end you don't get to exploit my emotions and senses for two hours, cap things off with pics of the real SEALs (including the lone survivor with his Afghani savior) to an uplifting tune, and think I'll find the unnecessary brutality I was force-fed is easily forgiven or to be considered entertaining.

If you'd like to see an excellent film about the brave men and women serving in Afghanistan, I highly recommend the documentary Restrepo by directors Tim Hetherington (killed in Libya in 2011) and Sebastian Junger which I happen to feel is the best film of 2010.