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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Taylor Kitsch and Mark Wahlberg star in "Lone Survivor," now playing.

"Lone Survivor" puts carnage and death before characters and depth


Actor-turned-director Peter Berg has a clear respect and appreciation for the armed forces. I would never say there is anything wrong with that whatsoever. The problem with Berg is that, despite his earnest intentions to pay tribute to those in the military, he doesn't seem to know how to do it in a respectful, appropriate manner on screen. He's Paul Greengrass without the smart humanist touch.

In his last film, "Battleship," he awkwardly tried to pay his respects but with the surroundings and aesthetic of a ferociously dumb Michael Bay action movie. That movie, however, was Berg merely doing a favor for the studio. That favor helped him get the leverage needed to make "Lone Survivor," a film not only closer to Berg's directorial style and sensibilities, but to his heart as well.

Berg took years to write the movie, spending time with Marcus Luttrell – the real-life lone survivor and author of the book of the same name – and other Navy SEALs in the hopes of getting it right and paying proper tribute.

I'm not going to pretend that I have any authority to the film's accuracy, and I'm certainly by no means here to review or criticize Luttrell, his three brothers in arms who were tragically killed back in 2005 or any other soldiers of any kind or era. The men and women who choose to enter into the military are undeniably braver and stronger individuals than I, and they will always have my deepest admiration.

I'm here solely to review the cinematic adaptation and tribute to their experience. And as such, despite Berg and company's clearly noble intentions and impressive craft on display, "Lone Survivor" is yet another misguided tribute, one that left me feeling less inspired and moved than very morally uneasy. Too often in the film, it felt like I was watching "Saving Private Ryan" as re-imagined by "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare."

I wouldn't go as far to call "Lone Survivor" propaganda, but there's enough jingoistic fervor, military glamorization and "noble soldier's death" mythologizing to make it hard to swallow.

After an extended opening credit sequence featuring footage of soldiers going through the ringer at boot camp (it feels like a recruitment video and would even more so if Berg wasn't so sincere about his admiration), the audience is introduced to the four SEALs of Operation Red Wings: team leader Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), comms guy Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Matt Axelson (Ben Foster, whose signature intensity is almost too much for the role) and Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg).

They hang out, pester each other about their wives and girlfriends, and lightly haze one of the newest recruits (Alexander Ludwig, Cato from "The Hunger Games") until they're given their ill-fated mission. They are to be dropped into Afghanistan with the assignment to covertly kill a brutal Taliban leader. Little context is given other than that he is a "bad guy;" this is a movie about the fight itself and little else.

Along the way, some herders come across the SEALs. The soldiers tie their unexpected visitors to some tree trunks as they heatedly debate their next move: They can kill them and continue the mission; they can keep them tied to the trees, almost certainly dooming the herders (two of which are kids) to die but giving the SEALs time to execute the mission and leave; or they can set them free and hope to be lifted out before the nearby Taliban track them down.

They uneasily choose the third option, sending the herders on their way fairly unharmed. Unfortunately, one of the young Afghans warns the local Taliban militia, who arms up to hunt down the four SEALs.

In a film filled with vicious action sequences and war violence, this conversation ends up being one of its most intense sequences. It's one of the few scenes that really addresses the morally grey murk of war and the no-win calculations involved in the work of these men. That the herders' anger in the scene might be because of being taken captive by foreigners in their own land is not considered, however, points to the moral/contextual issues at play in "Lone Survivor."

That scene of complexity soon gives way to the prolonged firefight that comprises pretty much the middle hour of "Lone Survivor." Putting any other issues aside and merely viewing the film for the action, it's just not all that thrilling or exciting. There's some visceral tension during the first gun fight or the first time the four SEALs fling themselves down a brutally endless hill of trees, rocks and sharp sticks. After repeating these beats three or four times, however, the action becomes repetitive and monotonous.

Also, for a movie based on real-life events, the action often feels more "Rambo" than real, with our main characters able to take monumental amounts of gunfire and abuse while the mindless enemies are all one-shot kills no matter what.

The action and carnage that becomes the focus of "Lone Survivor" is more problematic than merely being lukewarmly rousing. Berg's tribute, even with all of its unrepentant heartfelt earnestness, is less interested in who Luttrell and his fallen comrades were as real people, and more interested in how tough they were, how many bullets and wounds they could take, and in the end, how many bad guys they could take out before dying a noble death.

The only moments we have of character development come early on, and when they do, they're disappointingly just the same old clichéd talk of wives and girlfriends at home and tough bro banter. Yes, behind every cliché is likely some truth, but Berg's script nor the four lead performances find anything interesting, new or real underneath the superficial.

There's nothing here to differentiate these four men from the countless other soldiers – fictional or based on other real stories – that audiences have seen on screen other than that they fought, were brutally bloodied and, in the case of three of them, died. The movie instead chooses to spend its time defining these men not by who they were, but by the amount of bullets and broken bones they could survive and Taliban they could kill before succumbing to their plentiful wounds. And that's an absolute shame.

In the end, rather than their lives, "Lone Survivor" feels like it's glorifying these people's deaths. And morally, that sits unpleasantly with me. Death at war doesn't feel noble or glorious; it's tragic and cruel, the horrible consequence of humanity driven to its worst. It's a myth that doesn't hold up in a world where conflicts are no longer black and white. These men were heroic, but dying in combat isn't: Its sad. But the movie doesn't see it that way. It wants the audience to wish they could be as tough and could die as nobly.

The only time it touches on the cruel heartlessness of war is with a moment of punctuation during Axelson's death, but it plays less like a condemnation of war and more like extra prodding to hate the enemy.

There is actually another hero in "Lone Survivor," an Afghan villager named Gulab (Ali Suliman) who, along with his young son and some of the other villagers, helps protect Luttrell from the prowling Taliban militia. But that character and his bravery are given perfunctory treatment, despite the fact that's possibly the most heroic act in the entire film.

He has no hope for an airlift; that's his home, and he – and his son – will have to live with the dangerous consequences from there on out. Gulab, however, doesn't quite fit into the script's focus on American bravery and brotherhood. Instead, he and his fellow villagers feel like they're incorporated into the film out of obligation.

There is worthwhile craft on display in "Lone Survivor." It's nicely shot. The score from Steve Jablonsky and Explosions in the Sky moves, and the make-up effects are really impressive. Those, combined with some great stunt and camera work, give the movie and action plenty of authentic brutal grit.

I'm almost certain many will react differently to the film, and I'd understand why. It's hard not to feel something from a movie so blatant and heavy-handed with the emotional manipulation. But I guess I'd prefer a tribute that inspires people to avoid future conflicts and their tragic consequences, rather than making people more eager to join the fight.



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