Saturday, January 11, 2014

Behind Enemy Lines in Lone Survivor

     If you're not familiar with the story of Lone Survivor (based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson), you only have to read the title to realize that the majority of the characters you come to know in the film are going to die. And die they do, typically in absolutely brutal fashion. The everything-goes-wrong mission in Afghanistan--called Operation Red Wings--is ripe for a film about the skill of soldiers, patriotism, and the capacity of a human being's survival instinct. The acting is good, particularly when the bullets start flying: Mark Wahlberg has confidence and intensity, Emile Hirsch's terror is sad and vivid, and Ben Foster has a wild-eyed fervor that he brings to every role. So why is Lone Survivor a good (but not great) movie? I point the finger at director Peter Berg. Though he does a much better job than his last two films (2008's horrible Hancock and 2012's abhorrent Battleship), Berg's decision for more action and less subtlety and his over-the-top depiction of the violence causes Lone Survivors' characters to seem like invincible action heroes instead of actual human beings.
     From the opening montage scene during the credits, showing real-life Navy SEALs in training and gaining a confidence that they can push their bodies far further than they ever expected, Lone Survivor almost feels like a recruitment film for the armed forces (similar to portions of 2012's Act of Valor). When we first see the actors, they're doing normal things that soldiers do while on base: chatting with their girlfriends online, participating in a macho one-upmanship (whether running or ribbing on each other), and relaxing in cool confidence before their next mission. Though some have families back home, this is their real home: with their brothers, getting put through the Hell of war to protect America.
     After the few minor character development scenes, our four main SEALs are dropped into enemy territory, the treacherous and sometimes beautiful mountains of the Kunar Province. Their task seems doable: disrupt an Anti-Coalition Militia in the area by capturing or taking out a higher-up in the Taliban. They inch their way through the terrain until they reach a high vantage point of a village where the target has been located. Then they wait. Until a small group of goat herders walks right into them. A decision must be made: Kill the herders and trek up the mountain for extraction, tie them to a tree and trek up the mountain for extraction, or let them go and risk them coming back with an army. They choose the latter option, and it sets in motion the bloodbath of the rest of the film.
     Not long after the three herders are released, the SEALs can't get a connection with their Base, and a large group comes up the mountain to kill them. This middle potion of the film has the highest highs and the lowest lows: some of it is extremely intense, especially when our SEALs first realize that they are being surrounded. That first head shot, full of the notorious pink mist, is satisfying. And much of the violence is so visceral that you can almost feel it, a rarity in violent movies nowadays. But it grows to be too much: our characters are shot, take shrapnel, jump off a cliff, smash their heads on rocks, smack their bodies on trees, get shot some more, take rocket launcher blasts, jump off of another cliff, smashing their bodies on boulders, breaking bones, and clearly destroying their internal organs. After all of this, they still run (or at least hobble) around, splitting up blood, but they're still healthy off to pick off the militant forces. And of course, the non-Americans usually only take 1 bullet to die. The ending is rushed and leaves little impact (except for the montage of photos of the actual soldiers before the end credits).
     Filmmakers who decide to make a film about war have to walk a fine line: be too subtle and slow, and you risk boring the viewer. Focus too much on shooting, killing, and explosions, it becomes sensory overload, boring the viewer in the opposite fashion. A little nuance would have gone a long way in Lone Survivor: there's plenty of intensity in the film, but it never hits any relevant social commentary like Full Metal Jacket, never makes you sweat like The Hurt Locker, and it's not as well-directed as the Bin Laden compound raid in Zero Dark Thirty. It's more straight action movie (and sometimes even seems like a parody of one, like when the four Seals jump off a cliff, hand-in-hand in slo-mo). And that's okay--you can't claim that Lone Survivor isn't entertaining as an action movie, once the tension is raised and the heroes are put into peril. I just like my heroes--especially in war films--more human being than nearly indestructible force.     (B)

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