Throughout his career, I’ve gone back and forth about Peter Berg, from loving his work (The Kingdom) to being slightly put off by what feels like a tacit endorsement of authoritarianism (Patriot’s Day). In evaluating his body of work, the central question it seems to me is, does Peter Berg care about people?
He certainly seems to care about people in uniforms — be they the cops in Patriots Day, the oil drillers in Deepwater Horizon, the Navy SEALS in Lone Survivor, the football players in Friday Night Lights, or now the CIA agents in a unit called “Overwatch” in Mile 22. Now that polite society has outsourced so much of our war-fighting duties and dirty work to communities that we don’t have to think much about, there’s certainly value in exploring those people’s lives. That seems to be at least partly what drives Berg, who I spoke to this week by phone.
“When I was in college I took a lot of sociology courses, cultural anthropology courses and theater and film courses,” Berg says. “My entree into this business came from non-fiction, from doing research, going out and meeting people and immersing myself into different cultures and learning how to then translate that immersion into storytelling and into eventually moviemaking.”
“That’s just how I tend to look at things. If I’m driving by a construction site, I tend to slow down and look at the workers and see if I can pick up on the dynamics and figure out what they’re doing and imagine what kind of dramas and pressures they’re dealing with. That’s just how my mind organizes itself around storytelling. I don’t sit and stare at the clouds and think about dragons, my mind just doesn’t work that way. But if you take me to a restaurant and there are four cops sitting at a coffee shop drinking, you know, getting some coffee and eating hamburgers, I’m going to obsess about that. I’m going to start to imagine what their lives are like. I’ll start thinking about their world. Those are the kinds of stories that have always got me going.”
He mentions Upton Sinclair, and being inspired by the kinds of writers who would explore the lives of the average American worker. Yet Berg’s favorite characters, taken as a whole, don’t quite pass muster as average Joes. For every Deepwater Horizon, he has three movies about cops, FBI guys, or CIA agents — as in his latest, Mile 22, starring Mark Wahlberg as a fictional agent of “Overwatch,” which he says was based on the CIA Special Activities Division. Even in his hypothetical anecdote, he goes almost immediately to cops. His characters seem, by and large, to be figures granted lethal authority. Which naturally raises the question that if people you’re fascinated by all happen to be wearing uniforms, is it the person you’re drawn to, or the uniform? What’s it like to be that person… who has the authority to kill people?
“I’ve just always been appreciative in exploring the psychology of people who put themselves in violent situations or dangerous situations,” Berg says. “People who tend to move towards something that everybody else is running away from. And, in the case of Mile 22, what I started learning about the CIA Special Activities Division and the ground branch, specifically, and the paramilitary division of the CIA, I became fascinated. I feel like it’s a higher level of patriotism than what most of us are used to dealing with. And the more research I did on the ground branch, the more convinced I was that made it the right decision. Really, it is a remarkable group.”