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.