A few months ago when the trailer for this film was released, myself and a friend of mine were sort of perplexed by the ham-fisted patriotism on display. We lightly joked that it looked like “Act of Valor 2”, and assumed that with the cast and capable director involved here, that this was merely just a bad misleading trailer. Turns out, we were sadly not far off in our first impression.
The movie opens with a montage of actual footage of Navy Seals training, displaying the grueling amount of submission they go through. It’s meant to inspire patriotism in the audience, and display the brotherhood and unity within the troops. I saw something different and much more disturbing. I saw a group of young men being conditioned into unthinking and unconscious killers, praising the very beginnings of PTSD among so many soldiers. It did not inspire patriotism in me, instead, shame and horror. It’s unfortunate that that wasn’t the intent of Peter Berg’s direction of the film. Instead he is more concerned with creating a 2-hour recruitment video, ignoring all chances of investigation into character, setting and theme.
The plot revolves around the true story of “Operation Red Wings”, which saw 4 Navy Seals – Marcus Luttrell(Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy(Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz(Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson(Ben Foster) – in Afghanistan tasked to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. Based on the title, you can work out that it didn’t go according to plan, and Luttrell was the only one to make it out alive.
It’s a shame that with so many talented actors, Berg does not allow room for them to do any of it. You have Wahlberg’s naturally convincing anger, Kitsch’s commanding charm, Hirsch’s believable boyish sensibilities, and Foster’s raw intensity. Very little of their talent is used. Moments of acting are few and far between in this film, as Berg would rather cut to the next fire fight rather than allow for character understanding. He presumes by ultra-fraternity dialogue between the 4 will suffice, thinking that the mere fact they like “Anchorman” is enough to make us feel for them. It’s especially a letdown considering the character exploration seen in both the Movie and T.V. Show of “Friday Night Lights”, both Peter Berg productions. It’s faded since then, exemplified with “Hancock” and “Battleship”, both films about spectacle over anything else. Character development certainly isn’t beyond Berg, it just seems he doesn’t care to reach for it anymore.
While in the action scenes there were a few impressively constructed moments, for the most part they were done in a cheap knock-off of Paul Greengrass’s signature shaky-cam style. The thing that makes it work for Greengrass is that he still knows how to provide a sense of atmosphere and location for the audience. With him, they know where the action is happening. I don’t know if it was done here to put the audience into the intense and panicked situation of the seals, but I don’t think it worked. It was far more confusing and muddled than visually suggestive. I pray for the day when Hollywood will seek personal approval from Greengrass to shoot shaky-cam action. Taking away from the grounded atmosphere as well was the off-putting fact that in the gun fights they behaved like characters out of a G.I. Joe film. After each bullet they took, they’d crack a joke about how much they hate Afghanistan. The whole attitude in those scenes just feels unreal, and like it shouldn’t be in a film that’s attempting to portray a real event. Is it fantasy, or is it war? To Berg, apparently it’s both. He has essentially out-Micheal-Bayed Michael Bay’s fetishization of the military, a feat I am equal parts impressed and repulsed by merely because I didn’t even know that was possible.
I was hoping with recent films such as “Captain Phillips” and hell, even the “Fast and Furious” franchise that American/Western filmmaking had graduated past painfully outdated stereotypical portrayals of non-Americans, whether villainous or not. After great strides in this direction from the above-mentioned films, “Lone Survivor” makes every intention to send us 10 steps back. For the first 2/3rds of the film, all people from Afghanistan are not portrayed as humans, but as cartoon villains, as soulless monsters. I was honestly surprised when in the last 30 min., there were Afghani characters that were presented as being good, as actual humans. Unfortunately by that point, I couldn’t just forgive the previous hour and a ½ for taking every opportunity it could to make outdated and ignorant remarks towards just about anything regarding Middle Eastern culture for slightly attempting to correct itself. Too little, too late. Even when the film finally does remind itself that they are people too, it’s still done in the style of the painfully outdated “good native” stereotype. What could have been an opportunity to subvert western extremist perceptions of the region, instead attempts to reinforce them.
I don’t mean this as a criticism of the “Fast and Furious” films, but what kind of world are we living in when those films are the ones in Hollywood putting the most thought into non-American characters?