Monday, January 20, 2014
Lone Survivor (***)
Directed by Peter Berg
It's difficult to make a military film that's as unapologetically patriotic as Lone Survivor is because it just doesn't seem that cool. It's not cool to be so proudly American because that'll align you with the Tea Party nutjobs, and it's not cool to love pro-military films because you hate war. This is the train of thought for a lot of liberal-minded moviegoers who felt turned off by Lone Survivor the moment that they saw the trailer. I count myself as one of those people, but it was mostly because of the terrible cover of the David Bowie song "Heroes" that plays throughout it. The film is directed by Peter Berg, a master in cinematic heteronormativity and making things go boom. His films aren't nearly as mindless and sexist as the work of someone like Michael Bay, and Berg seems to enjoy the superiority that comes with making big action movies that also have messages. Berg made one really great movie in 2004, Friday Night Lights, and Lone Survivor is the first movie since then that has really even come close to the terrific power of that film. Sure, it's a war movie that has the gaul to NOT be an anti-war movie, but it's also character-focused, producing some entertaining performances and heavy suspense.
The film is based on the book by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, who penned the story of his miraculous survival amongst impossible odds. In the film Luttrell is played by Mark Wahlberg, but Berg smartly does not focus the movie on him. This is not the Marcus Luttrell Story, it is the story of four men of Operation Red Wings. These four Navy SEALs are commissioned to kill one of the Taliban's most lethal members, one responsible for the murder of twenty U.S. Marines just week prior to the mission's initiation. Their lead commander is Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), a soft-spoken giant whose leadership skills shine at the points of highest danger. There's also Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), their communication specialist and spotter. The team's prickliest member is Matthew "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster), a sniper who's logic is based on results, who's sense of humor is less apparent then the other members. Marcus is the final member of the reconnaissance team; he's another sniper and is best friends with Murphy. These four men are the team put together to take out Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami) and his crew who are killing American soldiers while also terrorizing Afghan civilians.
Operation Red Wings goes south pretty quickly once they're confronted by innocent civilians while they hide in the trees. They quickly take hold of the three young boys and one old man, and they're quickly faced with an important decision. Their mission compromised, they can either cut the group loose and let them go - knowing that they will quickly alert Shah's militia - or they can terminate the compromise. Marcus is adamant, they should not kill innocent bystanders just because they were unlucky enough to walk past them. Not only is it wrong, but it will quickly be discovered that American soldiers killed civilians, which won't help the U.S. military's already dragging reputation. Axe argues logic, that if they're let go, it won't be too long before they're all slaughtered by Shah's group. Dietz begins to agree with Axe, but Murphy makes an executive decision: let them loose, abandon the mission and hope for a quick savior. As expected, Shah's team is quickly all over the four SEALs. They fight them off as long as possible, leaping off of rock slides and crashing into tree barks while Taliban bullets hit them in the shoulders and legs.
Lone Survivor's middle forty-five minutes is complete mayhem, with all four soldiers sniping off dozens of Taliban but continuing to be overwhelmed by more and more opposition. After only ten minutes, they're all bloodied, their faces mangled. One has a broken leg, another has his fingers blown off. But Berg makes you focus on the whole of the team. The handheld digital camerawork creates a documentary style where suddenly the four soldiers begin to become indistinguishable from one another. We know from the film's title (and also from the film's first scene) that things do not end very well for members of the team not named Marcus. The film plays with that inevitability and the audience watches constantly waiting for the other shoe to fall. But this film's stunt work is amongst the greatest that I've ever seen, and we can feel them breaking and snapping, they're bodies flopping against hard surfaces while bullets fly past them. Despite knowing what will happen, it's their constant fight and spirit that imbibe the film with it's greatest energy.
Perhaps the film's biggest weakness is how much it relies on the Mark Wahlberg persona to get it through it's third act. Wahlberg is a fine actor, not great, who's happened to get work with some brilliant filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell and Martin Scorsese. He probably doesn't get enough credit for things that he does well, but it's for sure that he gets too much credit for the things that he can't. Lone Survivor's final forty-five minutes takes an interesting turn, and without giving too much away, I'll say that I really appreciated that they took the time to show that the Taliban is only a very small representation of the Middle East, and that the rest is filled with good people in an unlucky circumstance. I appreciated the film taking the time to explain this, but felt that the film's energy began to slow, because the four-man camaraderie that fuels the film's strongest moments is slimmed into a one-man show and Wahlberg isn't quite the performer to carry that responsibility. An actor like Edward Norton doesn't exactly attract the same box office as Wahlberg, but may have succeeded in the moments where Wahlberg was drowning.
The film's second act: the movie's brutal display of war and survival is where Lone Survivor is at it's strongest. For the first time since Saving Private Ryan, a war film shadowed the individuals in clouds of soot and gun smoke to emphasize the group and show that the strength of many is enough to overcome the opponent. No surprise to me, the film's best performance falls to Ben Foster, an actor so free of vanity who plays Axe with cold cynicism. Foster has terrific range, but it's these kind of roles - antagonistic, brooding - that are his sweet spot. He's one of the very best young actors working today, and he's exploring films big and small, comedies and tragedies. He's only been given one opportunity to headline a movie (2005's The Messenger) and was absolutely brilliant. Survivor has become a surprise hit in its first two weekends, grossing over $77 million. It's not a hit because it's Act of Valor: Wahlberg Edition. It's a hit because of the exact opposite: it's smart, well-directed and doesn't insult the intelligence of the audience. There are ways to make good war films that don't also include Oliver Stone-like hand-wringing and anti-war moralizing. Lone Survivor shows us that it's possible.