With Lone Survivor, director Peter Berg reminds me a bit of Cartman in the Faith+1 episode of South Park. Cartman changes the object of all the love songs from “girl” to “Jesus” to form a Christian rock band. Berg is like that, only instead of Jesus it’s the military. Mr. Berg? It seems like you really love the military. No no, I mean it seems like you are actually in love with the military. Sir, what I mean to say is that it seems like you actually want to have sexual relations with the military. Sir, can you please stop fanning your penis with that flag?
But, as much as Berg’s obsession with warfighting seems unhealthy and child-like, he’s so willing to wear his heart on his sleeve that it’s hard not to appreciate him. Passion – and I mean passion for the story and the subject matter, not passion for accolades and awards – has a way of trumping other considerations, like balance, and restraint, and not depicting your protagonist kissing an Afghani baby set to a cover of a U2 song. It’s quite possible that he’s a jingoist psychopath, but he’s a jingoist psychopath who makes a hell of a movie.
I’m a third of the way into Dirty Wars, a book about how extralegal killings of those deemed enemies of the US without due process or congressional oversight has become official policy, which I would not necessarily recommend pairing with a hagiography of the Navy SEALs who help carry out many of those killings. So when Berg’s film opened with real footage of SEALs doing push ups in the surf and being drowned and generally exhibiting superhuman levels of DETERMINATION and GRIT set to soaring guitar music, I could practically hear Berg shouting “HOLY SHIT, BRO, AREN’T THESE MOTHERF*CKERS BADASS?!” in my ear. It was slightly disconcerting.
I was pleased to find that the movie that followed however, was mostly about human beings making tough choices to help other human beings. Sure, the helpful human beings were almost all Americans, and they sometimes died heroically on a mountain top at sunset while being shot with slow motion bullets as “We Can Be Heroes” played, but like Amy Adams says in Her, “falling in love is like this socially acceptable form of insanity.” In this case you just have to remember that Peter Berg is in love with America.
Lone Survivor‘s perspective is planted firmly with the SEALs (the book it’s based on having been written by gung-ho Texan SEAL Marcus Luttrell), and yeah, on the whole we probably didn’t need another movie showing US special forces soldiers wasting bad guys like it’s a video game. But judged on its own merits, Lone Survivor is a pretty great story. It’s about a four-man team of SEALs – Marky Mark as Luttrell, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch – hunkered down in the mountains near an Afghan village where a head-chopping Taliban commander is busy applying eyeliner and making plans to drink the blood of children. While the SEALS wait for their opportunity to strike, some goat herders happen upon them, risking compromising their position. The situation presents them with a dilemma: kill the herders, and become murderers. Tie them up and leave them to possibly freeze to death before anyone finds them. Or let them go and risk getting killed when they blab to the Taliban. The SEAL team eventually lets the herders go, the fateful moment.
You can call Lone Survivor propagandist and not be totally wrong, but the fact that the most heroic act in the movie is one of compassion goes a long way (and as far as I know, actually happened). In real life, the US war effort didn’t always (or perhaps even often) prioritize avoiding a few civilian casualties above the success of the mission during the war on terror, so while this instance may not be a representative sample, it is easy cheer for. It’s aspirational, and Berg is clever enough to see the distinction. In a lot of ways, Peter Berg is the filmmaker Michael Bay would be if Bay was a tad smarter and better at his craft and less obsessed with titties. Basically, America is to Peter Berg what titties are to Michael Bay.
One of the goat herders turns out to be much faster than the SEALs expect, thanks to ROCK PARKOUR, and the Taliban is upon the SEALs faster than you can call a reporter a draft dodger. Hemmed in on all sides by Taliban fighters, the SEALs start jumping off cliffs. They take so much punishment that it borders on comical and fall down so many hills and for so long that it’s almost like the falling-down-the-hill scene in Hot Rod played for drama. It borders on unintentional comedy, but it’s also intense as hell. The theater was collectively exuding “oof” and “ouch” like we were watching a boxing match, and the slightly built gay man sitting next to me was literally cowering under a seat back. There were some silly lines (“tell ‘em I died with my brothers, with a full heart”), but let it never be said that Peter Berg can’t build and maintain tension. Visually, the only real flaw was that Emile Hirsch runs more like drama student than a Navy SEAL.
So yes, it’s a story about tough-guy SEALs wasting bad dudes and acting heroic as f*ck. No, it does not pass the Bechdel test. And for those of you hoping that Hollywood will stop depicting America as we like to see ourselves, I have an oil rich Nigerian uncle I’m collecting cashier’s checks for. It’s not going to happen. And as long as we’re still stroking ourselves off, you could do a lot worse than Lone Survivor. Lone Survivor is basically a more meatheaded version of Argo, a story of heroic Americans that’s somewhat one-sided and plays fast and loose with the truth at points and has a preposterous Hollywood ending that only an Amish hoarder would believe, but is pretty entertaining nonetheless. Berg even slaps a credits montage featuring pictures and video of the real men who died in the operation, which is cheap and cheating and a way to make his film above criticism, but totally works as a tear-jerking strategy (though I did make me wonder where the hell was that Asian guy for the entire movie?). You really believe Peter Berg made the movie for these people. There’s a sweetness to that gesture, even if it may have come from a place of unhealthy idolization. Impressionable youths probably won’t know the difference, but in fairness to Berg, he has gone to great pains to drive home the point that the movie is about soldiers and not war. Well, American soldiers, anyway.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.