I know that Lone Survivor will be promoted as a film about heroism. There’s even a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” over the ending memoriam to those who died in the Afghanistan firefight that the film depicts. There is definitely bravery and sacrifice in Peter Berg’s modern warfare film – but – it operates best as a body horror film.
Fingers are lost, bones are broken and poking through skin, eyelids are flattened over eyes like putty. The toll that the bodies of four soldiers (Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch) endure is remarkably realized. At a time when military movies are all automatic rifles and explosions, it’s rocks and tree trunks that batter these soldiers repeatedly and horrifically. After surviving a stretch of the prolonged attack Wahlberg stands up on his shattered, fractured leg and takes a few painful steps before he encounters a log he has to step over to continue to retreat. In Lone Survivor nature damages more organs and limbs, and provides more obstructions than the Taliban.
How did these soldiers get into this situation? They were sent to a high mountain vantage point to verify that “the bad guy” with “no earlobes” was in refuge at a village. After radioing in that he was, their site was compromised by a herder and two small boys. One of them has a radio. They are unarmed. The soldiers debate whether to let them go, tie them and leave them or kill them as accessories. The debate is interesting. The points involve possible media coverage. It involves humanism. It involves brutalism. It never sounds like Berg is ticking the boxes of all opposing sides of discussion, like he wants to voice the different opinion of as many members of the audience as possible. It feels natural.
Lone Survivor is based on a book by Marcus Luttrell (here played by Wahlberg), who was the lone survivor after that decision was made. Their second point was found and their communication devices were unable to connect with their base, so they had to try to get to the bottom of the mountain. Thus the injuries of not just bullets, but from the earth itself.
The introduction to these four characters is clunky. It might be true, but it’s a clunky intro. There are wives back home who want things. One wants an Arabian horse. One has some interior decoration ideas. One soldier already has his eyes set on a bridesmaid.
We really don’t get to see them as characters until confronted with the choice of what to do with the civilians who’ve stumbled upon them. It is here that the actors excel.
Kitsch speaks with reason and force. It’s really a great moment for him as an actor after crashing and burning in his three lead “He’s gonna be a star!” flameouts last year (John Carter, Savages, Berg’s own Battleship; though to Berg’s credit, he already found the Kitsch on display here with his Friday Night Lights TV series). Wahlberg is appropriately lost in the potential largeness of the discussion. Foster tries to talk him over to his side. Hirsch has a great moment after his body has all but given up on him after they’ve tumbled down the mountain. He talks incoherently and too loud to his brothers in arms, who actually just need him to be quiet. All four of the actors get moments in the mountains, but their moments on the base aren’t very engaging.
The primary engagement in Lone Survivor is how your own body reacts to the pummeling the mountain gives the soldiers. It’s a truly fantastic sequence in stunts, performance, makeup and sound design. Berg adds some great touches to punctuate this horror, such as the wheezing of the characters as their lungs get scratchy and fill with blood. The hazy blinks that set in as the body begins to fade away.
The strengths of the military portion of Lone Survivor are similar to Black Hawk Down. Both of these films look at warfare as a job. “Punch the time clock,” Kitsch says as he looks through the scope of a gun. “Gotta pay the bills,” Foster says to his wife in an internet chat. This idea of warfare being work, not patriotic duty, is all over the film, and like any job there’s frustration in how the chain of command makes decisions take longer than necessary, when something can be done by the messenger and instead you have to wait for someone else to extend the obvious response.
In the true story, Afghani villagers aided Luttrell for five days. They moved him around from village to village to hide from the Taliban. In the film it’s very brief. It’s great and rare to see the Afghani opposition in an American film, but it’s all too rushed. It’s presented as a brief surprise and then it’s just another person shooting at the Taliban.
For the battering that came before, more time in the village would have been more interesting than the swift return of the enemy – those who aided Luttrell have no personhood other than Taliban opposition. The fact that Lone Survivor gives us a little bit of this perspective, makes me want more. “The true story of courage” as it explains on the movie’s poster, to me, seems equally apparent in the village.
Lone Survivor opens with a great shot. It’s simple. It’s just a shot of the terrain outside of the Afghanistan village. There are some bushes in the distance. Then it appears that a bush is moving, but it’s actually a helicopter. So natural do the helicopters look, and so frequently they’d appear in these regions, that they might as well be a part of nature. In that village, these are the people who live with the threat of “the man with no earlobes.” The Americans are there to do a job. Punch the time clock.
I mean that as no disrespect to anyone in the following montage of real service members who died in the retrieval operation. There are obvious acts of bravery and of sacrifice.
However, instead of trying to create these characters, Berg bookends real footage of training and photographs of the deceased to stand for the crutch of the emotion. For the military and the families, that’s a fantastic service; for the film – within the story – it’s a disservice. Unlike the discussion of what to do with the civilians who’ve discovered their hideout, the opening and closing of the film appeals to just one viewpoint, which pushes it a little close to a propaganda. However, the body horror in between feels un-glamorized, futile and hopeless.
The middle of Lone Survivor is a terrifying freefall, but it ends with a pillow: a repeated narration about brotherhood. The pictures and training videos justify these, but it feels separate from the film we’ve seen.