Nowadays, Hollywood war films almost too often fall into the category of flag-wavy patriotic propaganda. I don’t mind that particularly, so long as the film is simply enjoyable to watch in any fashion. However, I’d love to see some more challenging work (and still aimed at the general audience) that would add to the discussion on the validity of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria, but it will probably require a few more decades for the film-makers to gain the necessary perspective on the subject. I think that films like “Zero Dark Thirty” would either end up completely different, or would be received in a different way, if we waited 5-10 years to make them. The same goes, quite unfortunately, for “Lone Survivor” directed by Peter Berg, as it is way too easy a target for criticism.
There’s no dispute that the harrowing story of the NAVY Seals team led by Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), whose mission of targeting an important Taliban figure turned into a fight for survival, carries a great movie potential. You can’t really ask for much more: men on a mission stuck behind enemy lines without radio contact with anybody, outnumbered by the Taliban fighters, shooting their way out to safety and doing their best to stay alive… And it’s a true story…
Yet, simply because the story of “Lone Survivor” is relatively fresh and the war in Afghanistan is still relevant, it almost invariably brings severe constraints for the film-makers. All of a sudden, it is a requirement to make “Lone Survivor” not merely an action war film, but a monument in memory of these soldiers, who gave their lives doing their jobs, or as some would say – defending their country. I don’t think it’s the time or the place to discuss the ramifications of the US military policy, so let’s leave it at that. However, the fact it seems unwarranted and uncomfortable to raise this point goes to show, that ”Lone Survivor” should not have been made in 2013 at all. Quite frankly, I’d like to have been able to put those men’s ordeal in a wider context without sounding insensitive, which could be possible, if the film-makers hadn’t made a point of turning this otherwise riveting and intense film into a memorial wreath.
Everything else aside, “Lone Survivor” is a spectacle that shows a modern battlefield in a way I have not seen done before on the big screen. Granted, from the 90’s onwards we have witnessed the war cinema make the transition to focus more on the realism, grit and chaos of the battle, especially shown from the perspective of the foot soldiers, but ”Lone Survivor” pushes the envelope even further. Much like Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”, this film shows fighting exclusively through the eyes of the NAVY Seals and almost everything we see on the screen is designed to put the viewer right in the midst of it all. It’s amazing how much can be achieved without resorting to the ‘easy-way-out’ epic orbiting shots of the battlefields and such. Sure, the film sports a fair amount of helicopter shots, but the vast majority of the fire-fights are filmed on a personal level.
I was literally taken aback by how kinetic and chaotic everything in “Lone Survivor” was. The idea of being surrounded, or not being able to locate the enemy is portrayed in a very detailed way that keeps the viewer immersed in the story. The combination of the chaotic and shaky camera work (without going to any extremes, though) with amplified and meticulously perfected sound design makes “Lone Survivor” very convincing. When bullets are flying, mortar shells are exploding, or bones are breaking, you understand the reality of the situation – it’s pure chaos. In the age of extreme realism in cinema, “Lone Survivor” most assuredly breaks new ground in portraying modern warfare. Without a doubt, the technical team behind the special effects and sound design deserve some recognition for their work.
“Lone Survivor” with its gripping visuals, deafening and disorienting sounds of the battle, and convincing – yet a little stencilled and clichéd – mix of characters makes for a very enjoyable experience, at times reminiscent of a western. However, I didn’t feel at all permitted to lose myself in the film. I understand that Peter Berg took this film very personally and he had every right to do so, but the heavy-handed pathos, that rears its head every now and again (especially in the end credits), stands in the way of immersion. Though, in that vein I can’t really deny him the earnestness, with which Berg filmed this story, as it is clearly visible that his goal was to make sure that the ordeal was properly detailed on the screen, and that the respect is paid to those who lost their lives while serving their country.
Although it seems the story of “Lone Survivor” has certain gravity to it, as it shows perfectly the devotion and the sense of fraternity among the soldiers, I think I’d enjoyed it more, had it been either purely fictional, or at least more subtle in making a point of reminding me of the sacrifice of those men. Nevertheless, “Lone Survivor” still tries to make a point of showing the different shades of grey in a war situation, and how the innocent bystanders are affected by the military operations taking place in their backyards. It surely makes an interesting topic for discussion along with the seeming apotheosis of American soldiers, who are believed to be defending their country thousands of miles away from home, and whose death realistically doesn’t change anything in the grand scheme of things. Yet, I can’t do that either, because it would by simply disrespectful.
All in all, I liked “Lone Survivor” very much and it will surely find its way to my shelf one day, but I would do without the excessive flag waving. If anything, I’d say that the message of the film would have been much more powerful without it.