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Entries in Lone Survivor [2013] (1)

Monday
Jan132014

Lone Survivor (2013)

Barking SEALs

I was in the unenviable position of being for the war, but against the troops.

--Bill Hicks

For months, I've been unable to avoid the five-minute Lone Survivor infomercials playing before almost every movie at the multiplex. Part trailer, part interview package, the spots feature writer/director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg extolling the heroism of former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, who was the only member of a botched 2005 surveillance mission in Afghanistan to make it out alive. Packed with action scenes and beating drums, and dripping with cliches about how the men weren't fighting for their lives, but for the lives of their brothers-in-arms, I could only hope the film itself would at least rise above the level of jingoistic propaganda that made Act of Valor so intolerable. Sadly, Lone Survivor is worse than Berg's last big-budget military blowjob, Battleship: at least the personality-free, invading robots in that film could never be mistaken for human beings.

Before you star writing that angry e-mail, please know that this review isn't an attack on the U.S. military. It is, however, a critique of how they're generally portrayed in movies--and in Lone Survivor especially. With few exceptions, mainstream filmmakers fall over themselves to showcase the state-of-the-art, city-flattening hardware; stoic obedience; and straight-up ballsiness of combatants who risk their lives daily to afford them a life of luxury centered around making awful Transformers movies. In other words, when you hear Michael Bay or Peter Berg say, "Thank you for your service", feel free to re-interpret that as, "Better you than me".

To paraphrase Michael Moore (I know, I know, shut up), if the average American can't be bothered to get off their ass and actually do something about solving the world's problems peacefully, the very least we can do is make sure the brave men and women we send off to out-of-sight, out-of-mind places to kill and be killed are doing so for noble reasons. But in military blockbusters, it's often impossible to hear critical, reasoning voices over the awesome firepower displays and shouts of "Fuck you!" In short, just because a character pops up in battle fatigues doesn't mean he's part of a film that deserves respect.

Which lands us right in Lone Survivor's lap. I haven't read Luttrell's book (on which the film is based), but if Berg has captured its spirit, I'm surprised anyone thought it was ripe for adapting: none of the military personnel depicted here come off as bright, and their highly avoidable, gruesome deaths make the story more tragic than memorable. Luttrell and his friends are depicted as the kind of macho idiots who can can establish satellite uplinks and take down Taliban fighters with ease, but who get queasy and confused when talking about color swatches for decorating a new home, or the difference between an Arabian horse and an "Arabic" one. They haze each other by making lower-level officers act "girly"; refer to the Taliban as "bad guys"; and name mission checkpoints after various brands of beer. If this weren't being touted as a legit war movie, I'd swear the Zucker Brothers had re-made Full Metal Jacket.

It's a sad state of affairs when such capable actors as Wahlberg (playing Luttrell), Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana, and Taylor Kitsch (who miraculously survived Battleship, John Carter, and Savages, and brings some actual chops to this role) are reduced to playing action figures.* Luttrell and his three friends are dropped onto a mountain to verify the presence of a Taliban leader (Yousuf Azami), and await orders to take him out. Before they can complete the mission, they encounter three unarmed goat herders. Following the only thing Lone Survivor has resembling an adult conversation, the SEALs decide not to execute the locals--which leads, of course, to a Taliban ambush that wipes out everyone except the guy on the poster (Spoiler?).

The film's middle forty minutes is a fight for survival, as a hundred or more "bad guys" stalk the SEALs through the woods and down steep rock faces. Luttrell and his team fall further and further back, getting shot, and hurling themselves off cliffs in order to escape. By the third bones-shattering tumble down a rocky mountainside, I was more nauseous than enthralled. I guess this is a credit to the stuntmen, sound designers, and to makeup-effects maestros Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero, who do for war victims what they do for zombies on The Walking Dead. The problem is they're underserved by Berg's direction and Tobias Schliessler's cinematography, which crops every shot so closely that one might imagine the filmmakers struggling to keep the Hollywood sign out of their frame.

Making matters worse is a rescue mission that fails spectacularly. The Bana character ignores protocol--which dictates he wait for Apache helicopter cover before entering a combat zone--and leads two transports to the top of the mountain. In one of the film's most unintentionally hilarious scenes, a Taliban rocket flies straight up his helicopter's asshole and splatters twenty-five or so people the woods. It's one of many rash, deadly decisions that could have been avoided, had anyone in charge bothered to consider strategy, or even learn about their enemy's capabilities (while bleeding to death, the Hirsch character remarks at how fast the Taliban were, as if no one had taught him that his foes were also skilled warriors who didn't just stumble out of caves brandishing sharp rocks).

Luttrell is later discoverd by an Afghani villager (Ali Suliman) who takes him in and protects him from the Taliban. Had linguistics and cultural training been mixed in with oxygen-debrivation exercises, he might have figured out that his host was not determined to sell him or torture him--but was actually abiding by an ancient honor code. Up until the climactic rescue raid on the village, where both the U.S. military and the Taliban converge on the home where Luttrell is being cared for, Luttrell is either obsessed with threatening to blow up his hosts with a grenade, or engaged in a sitcom pantomime with the villager's son (Rohan Chand).

Lone Survivor's myriad problems are underscored by its opening. Berg places five minutes of documentary SEAL training footage at the head of his movie, and then proceeds to tell a story that A) isn't half as interesting, and B) belies the nobility and integrity of these real-life warriors. I would love to have gained some insight as to what makes a SEAL a SEAL--to learn how a person gives themselves over to the systematic re-programming of the human brain to ignore survival instincts in favor of protecting others. All I got was a movie full of jock assholes doing jock asshole things while invading a country that was, for some weird reason, mad at a nation they viewed as imperialist jock assholes. And no amount of slow-motion deaths or patriotic drum beats can make up for the notion that, perhaps, this "true story" is one better left untold.

*Luttrell himself also appears in an extended cameo. He's the SEAL who looks like he's missed about a month's worth of morning drills, if you catch my drift. He's also the guy who sounds like an athlete doing camera tests.