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.”
I ask if he worries that in depicting people with violent jobs, he might be glorifying violence itself.
“I don’t think about glorifying the violence, but I think about paying respect to the type of character that’s willing to engage in that kind of activity,” Berg says. “I think the way I generally go about shooting violence or action, I wouldn’t call it action, I would call it violence or warfare, is to try to make it as real as possible. Mile 22 is fiction, so I wasn’t bound to reality, quite like Lone Survivor or Deepwater or Patriot’s Day. Those are three films where we tried not to glorify it or sensationalize it, but to present it as I think it probably really was, which was chaotic and brutal and terrifying. I find that not to be glorifying so much, but just paying respect to it.”
It’s maybe harder to pin down what’s so wrong with depicting “the brave men and women of…” whatever. They exist, they have a hard job, and they deserve to be thought about. It’s a complicated criticism to level because, like the old cliché about jazz, a lot of it is about the notes they’re not playing. It’s just that by and large, our movies spend a lot more time depicting the manhunts, the drone strikes, the special-ops, more time thinking about the inner lives of the people carrying the pistols, than they do worrying about who’s on the receiving end. Which makes sense — guns and gadgets and jargon are much easier to make look cool. Berg is by no means the worst offender, but I mention that his last few movies seem to depict a lot more of the people controlling the drones than they do the people getting hit by the drones. But he doesn’t agree with the premise.
“I don’t know. I mean, if you look at Deepwater Horizon. They got attacked pretty hard. You know? Those guys were fighting for survival,” he says.
Deepwater Horizon is an odd example, and earlier he’d mentioned trying to “give you the perspective of the oil, and why it was starting to erupt.” But it doesn’t really fit either of our points so I don’t interrupt.
“Even in Lone Survivor, those guys, 19 of them got killed. They were the ones getting killed. Patriot’s Day was a film about spectators watching a marathon and they were attacked. They weren’t firing the drone. They were on the receiving end. I think in most all of the stories I tell about people, they are on the receiving end and they have to fight back. If you really look at Lone Survivor, it’s not a film exclusive to Americans being attacked, it’s also a film about Muslims being attacked. Gulab and his village, it was a Muslim village, and they were under attack also. These are not movies about the guys who are firing the drones.”
Mile 22 is an interesting new entry, since for most of its running time it feels positively enamored with drone strikes and special ops and extrajudicial justice, but with a final chapter that could either be interpreted as a rebuke to CIA meddling, or simply as a way to make the military infatuation seem less obvious. I honestly don’t know, maybe that’s why I feel compelled to press Berg on the issue.
If it reads like an adversarial exchange, it wasn’t especially uncomfortable. For all the reservations I have about Berg’s work, the way it sometimes seems to fanboy out at the military-industrial complex, one thing I appreciate about him is the way he seems to expect, even invite, tough questions. Those are the ones it seems like he’d rather answer. He likes to spar — sometimes literally, I’ve read a few interviews with him that involved boxing lessons (he owns a boxing gym). And, of course, my favorite moment of Berg’s acting career is him as the boxer Irish Terry Conklin in Great White Hype, promising to open “a case of butt-whippin’.”
In almost every interview I do, I have a way of writing a question that sounds like a careful, respectful way of introducing a topic I want to discuss. Underneath it there’s usually a follow-up, something in parentheses, that’s generally closer to what I really wanted to ask. Throughout the interview, Berg had a knack for saying almost exactly what was in the parentheses before I did.
For instance, I’d read that Mark Wahlberg’s character in Mile 22 was partly inspired by Steve Bannon. The obvious, impolite question about that would be about whether this could be interpreted as glorifying a white nationalist. Being played by Mark Wahlberg in an action movie sounds pretty close to Steve Bannon’s dream. That was in the parentheses. First I went with “…tell me about that.”
“We were in the middle of writing Mile 22, and the Steve Bannon interview came out on Charlie Rose,” Berg says. “For me, say what you want about Steve Bannon. Obviously, you could say a lot of bad things about the guy, but he’s undeniably entertaining. The way his mind works, I found it to be interesting fodder for a case officer like Silva [Wahlberg’s character], someone who has developed his own, somewhat, radicalized thought process, who’s been running ground operations for maybe longer than he should have. He’s got a very aggressive dynamic, a somewhat jaded way of looking at conflict resolution and world politics, which I think Steve Bannon probably does have. So, we’re definitely not glorifying Steve Bannon. But there’s something about the febrile nature of Steve Bannon’s mind and thought process that we thought would be compelling for the Silva character.”
Talking to Berg is like that, the way he’ll anticipate my real question before I’ve asked it. He’s smart, and just self-aware enough, which is probably why I still find most of his work compelling, even when it feels faintly authoritarian. Before we hang up, he adds, “If you’re going to say that I’m jingoistic and I make movies about the guys who fire the drones, not the guys that get hit, just check, because I tell stories about both.”
“Jingoism” was another word I had in parentheses. My takeaway is that Peter Berg is a guy who likes answering the impolite question, the one you were too cowardly to ask. That makes him an outlier in Hollywood. In fact, the interview I was originally pitched involved skydiving. I agreed and was all set to go, even getting things cleared with Uproxx’s legal department until the same week, James Corden did a skydiving segment with Tom Cruise. Berg’s people canceled, not wanting us to look like copycats. (Ugh, Corden. Is there anything he can’t ruin?)
I lamented this in the first part of my conversation with Berg, asking if he was as bummed as I was that we weren’t going skydiving. “What happened? Did you chicken out?” he asks.
“I didn’t chicken out. I was scared, but I figured if Tom Cruise can do it 150 times or whatever, I can do it once,” I tell him.
He asks if I’ve ever done it before. I say no. I ask if he has.
“I’ve done it 14 times,” he says. “I had a malfunction when I was on the 14th, and that spooked me, so I haven’t gone back, but I gotta get back up there.”
A malfunction? I’m glad I didn’t know that before. I ask what happened.
“My left toggle got tangled and I couldn’t steer it. So, I had to get creative. I should’ve cut my chute, but it didn’t happen at altitude, it happened at about 6000 feet when I deployed, and my left toggle knotted up on me, so I couldn’t steer. You have two toggles that you steer with on the left and right. I should have cut my chute and gone to my backup, but I was too nervous, and I figured that if my main chute was messed up, I didn’t know who packed it, and I figured they might have messed up my auxiliary shoot tooo, so I didn’t trust it. So, they had taught me, when I was learning how to steer, with what’s called ‘the riser,’ where you bypass the toggle and you just have to kind of just muscle down on the whole parachute, on the main straps. And I was able to land it doing that. But that scared the shit out of me, and I haven’t jumped since then, but I will.”
I can’t help but be drawn to this wildman, who experiences a malfunctioning parachute but still wants to jump out of planes for fun. It’s not lost on me that my own action-man fascination impulse with Berg can’t be much different than the impulses that draw Berg to his favorite characters — the dip chewers, the jargon spewers, the burly manly men with guns and planes and drones and toys. Maybe that’s the key to his success, that there’s a little bit of Peter Berg in all of us, for better or worse.