Review: Peter Berg's 'Lone Survivor' offers spectacular combat but no substance
I have no doubt that Peter Berg genuinely idolizes the US military.
Every detail in "Lone Survivor" feels carefully considered and deeply felt. Berg's script is lean and rings authentic all the way through. Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch all seem dedicated to telling this story as truthfully as possible. It is obvious that Peter Berg considers this an important story and that he took the responsibility of bringing it to the screen as something important and urgent.
Despite that, my primary reaction to "Lone Survivor" as a film is "And?" While I can admire the way the story is told, as a story it does nothing for me. We watch a team of SEALs get sent on a mission that, even if it had succeeded would have accomplished nothing of any importance, and then we watch them die one by one. That's pretty much it. I've seen the film twice, looking for something more in it, convinced that I simply hadn't connected with it the first time. Despite the profound sense of respect the film obviously has for the people it depicts, it ultimately strikes me as a hollow exercise.
Movies made while we are still engaged in an active conflict are rarely able to offer us any sense of perspective, and "Lone Survivor" works when it comes to staging combat, but not at all away from it. The one sequence in the film that holds any real dramatic weight comes not long after Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg) and his team drop into Afghanistan. They run into a couple of civilians while they're getting their bearings, and they debate what to do with them. If they let them go, there's a chance they'll warn the Taliban. Once the SEALs make the decision to let them go, things escalate very quickly and the film becomes more virtual reality than dramatic narrative. There is no arguing with the extreme and explicit staging of the combat. Berg makes sure every single bullet wound hurts, and the sound mix, particularly when people take horrifying falls down a mountain, is punishing. But even after watching these characters get shot to pieces and physically demolished, I'm not sure the film has anything to say about those deaths, or about what they mean in the larger sense to our time in Afghanistan. If we're willing to send these men into battle and we're willing to let them die, then it needs to be for something. It needs to mean something, and "Lone Survivor" doesn't offer any context.
Actually, that's not completely true. There is a little bit of time spent introducing their target, Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), but the film is heavy-handed with establishing him as a moustache-twirling bad guy. The first time we see him, he's lopping off the head of an innocent, which seems like a pretty clear indication that he's the villain. Towards the end of the film, Berg goes overboard in the other direction, making sure to show the regular villagers being extra-good, going to bat for Wahlberg as the last remaining member of his team. Whether this is exactly the way it went down or not, the way it plays in the film doesn't work. Berg's collaborators like cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler and editor Colby Parker Jr. and production designer Tom Duffield all do exemplary work, but to what end? The film's failure to say anything, to do something more than reproducing 19 brutal deaths, left me uneasy, and I think any filmmaker looking to make a movie about the 21st century US military has to be aware of just how difficult a subject that is to dig into right now. The movies that were made about Iraq were pretty uniformly awful, super serious and unsure about their message, and this film struggles the same way.
While I do believe, as I stated above, that Berg's admiration for people who serve is crystal clear, it borders on being a fetish in this movie. When I watch a prolonged sequence about an American SEAL, trapped at the bottom of a cliff, broken and beat, slowly getting torn apart by gunfire until he finally dies, it can't just be for the sake of watching it happen. It's not enough, and I can't really recommend "Lone Survivor." The score on this review is almost entirely for technical accomplishment, since there's nothing else here to rate. It is no more profound in its commentary on war than "Call Of Duty: Ghosts" or "Battlefield 4" were this fall, and that troubles me in a way I can hardly articulate.