Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review: Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor (2013)

With Lone Survivor, director Peter Berg has made the war movie equivalent of a Saw film. It is an intense, grueling, and gruesome experience, depicting the brutality experienced by a team of four Navy SEALs during the botched Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan in 2005. Before going to see this film, you must ask yourself what your tolerance level is when it comes to ultra-realistic violence, because even I, someone who's enjoyed his fair share of blood-soaked splatter flicks, cringed on several occasions while watching this. The film's leering focus on violence and bloodshed is both its greatest strength and its greatest failing, making the battle scenes that much more intense but also clashing with and undermining the patriotic, pro-military message that the film tries to send, instead coming off as a solid two hours of military torture porn. I recommend this movie in spite of everything, but if you decide to take me up on my recommendation, you had best check your stomach at the door.

Seriously. It's almost as though Berg went out of his way to make every bullet wound, every groan of pain, every slip down a mountainside hitting every rock and tree down, just that much more lurid. Had he been setting out to make a "war is hell" movie, a War on Terror version of Apocalypse NowPlatoon, or All Quiet on the Western Front, then he would have done his job admirably here, painting a portrait of the war in Afghanistan that made me never want to join the military. However, here he was setting out to make a gung-ho action flick lionizing the Navy SEALs as America's premier badasses and the closest thing that history has had to super-soldiers. Themes of patriotism and duty are brought up at the beginning and end, but for much of the middle hour of the flick, we are instead subjected to American servicemen getting their asses handed to them by a seemingly unstoppable horde of Taliban fighters. If I were in the Taliban, I would be cheering at this movie for all of the wrong reasons. It is precisely the opposite of Francois Truffaut's famous comment that it is impossible to make an anti-war war movie without making war look awesome. Here, the film tries to give a glamorous depiction of the military and the Navy SEALs especially, but instead it plays out like a survival horror flick in which combat is presented as an exercise in unremitting terror and brutality. Letting up on the violence, if only for a moment, would've tempered the vibes that this film gives off.

It is a damn shame that the film screws up its intended message so badly, because its various components are uniformly excellent. Mark Wahlberg plays the titular lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell, whose memoirs were the inspiration for the film, and the cast is rounded out by Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch as his squadmates Mike Murphy, Matt Axleson, and Danny Dietz. All four of them are as intense and cool as you'd expect from four Navy SEALs, looking like paragons of physicality and badassitude. Moreover, as much as I complained about the massive combat scene that takes up the middle section of the film, I still cannot deny that, on a purely technical level, it was one of the best, most knock-me-on-my-ass enthralling action scenes I've witnessed in a long while. Berg is an outstanding technical filmmaker even if his narrative skills were weak here, and is one of the few directors who's able to pull off the style of Paul Greengrass while still keeping the action scenes coherent. Watching this film do the seeming impossible and make "shaky cam" actually interesting to watch, I can understand why so many lesser action directors use it as a crutch. Finally, when the film slows down and moves into a Pashtun village for the third act, I was able to understand just what kind of message it was trying to send about our involvement in Afghanistan. It remembers that Afghanistan is not some faceless blob of bad guys, and refreshingly humanizes the people who our military's mission is to protect from the Taliban. Had the film spent more time with these villagers instead of lingering on war porn for over an hour, its message could have been far more powerful.

Score: 3 out of 5

A mirthless exercise in brutality grossly (in every sense of the term) undermines what was clearly trying to be a powerful film about sacrifice, heroism, and fighting against tyranny, instead coming off as precisely the opposite thanks to its lurid focus on graphic violence. Still, it is a nail-biter of an action movie that deserves to be seen -- if you have the stomach for it.

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