Let’s cut to the chase: Lone Survivor is not a date movie. Just as you wouldn’t treat your Mum to Hostel or suggest Schindler’s List at a hen do, nothing says “seriously reconsider sleeping with me” like 121 minutes of on-screen maiming. The only people who may enjoy watching this film together are rugby teams, compulsive gamers and the collectors of war memorabilia. Saying that, if you’re a man looking for a safe space to cry, this could be right up your street.
Director Peter Berg’s follow up to Battleship – ominous start already – revisits the true story of a disastrous 2005 US Navy Seals mission in Afghanistan. Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster star as brothers-in-arms, dispatched to gather intel on a Taliban leader heavily kohled to indicate menace. Choppered into remote mountain territory, things start to go wrong thanks to dodgy phones and a group of goats with bad timing. The group are rumbled – cue an orgy of blistering violence and the least surprising finale in film history. (Spoiler: the outcome’s in the title.)
Boiling Berg’s Zero Dark Maybe moment down to its basics seems appropriate, given the reductionism that flaws Lone Survivor as a whole. Skewed so heavily in favour of rip-roaring battle re-enactment, anything outside the film’s pummelling fight scenes feels token. Characters are stock, context is sparse, and any real engagement with the wider issues surrounding the war on terror resolutely ignored.
Much is made of the film’s true story basis. Opening and closing with real-life footage of the men portrayed, Berg’s intentions are clear: “These guys were real, and this will be emotional.” A clever way of upping the emotive stakes, yet one that implicitly binds audiences to his take on the truth; fictionalised accounts of real events feel hard to question when framed with poignant relics of the facts themselves.
Berg guns for emotion over examination from the off. His characters are Just Normal Guys – we’re introduced as they pad between each other’s rooms at Bagram Air Base, chatting about tile samples and ponies as wedding presents. The Commander’s wearing Birkenstocks. We could be at at Brownie Camp. Sure, it’s clear these are good, kind men getting by as best they can, and it’s in part refreshing to have the humdrum of army life open a war film. But characters fail to develop beyond fleeting assertions of their private lives; indeed, most remain reduced to early sentimental signposts – The Hero, The One Getting Married, The With The Wife Who Wants to Redecorate. Worse, their private stories feel harnessed to the film’s narrative as tokenistic sentiment-seekers, justifying whatever creative license Berg might flex.
Wahlberg and co do their best, with committed performances across the board, but none has much to work with beyond standard soldierly stoicism and sheer bodily stress. Each does deserve commending for the film’s astonishing physical demands – brace yourself for not one, but two moments where men literally tumble down cliffs – and it’s during battle that Lone Survivor comes into it’s own. Disconcertingly so.
Taking cinematic warfare to a new level of excruciating detail and mauling length, these scenes are gripping and horrifying in equal measure; Berg’s team deserve credit for the exceptional realism achieved. Yet their efforts are undermined by hints of Hollywood that splice the action. Berg can’t resist a well-timed slow-mo or orchestral swell. Yes, it looks and sounds phenomenal, but as its central characters are torn to shreds, Lone Survivor starts to feel like a video game. It’s this curious mix of fact and fiction that ultimately flaws the film, and leaves a lingering unease. America has regularly used cinema to mythologise it’s past – Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre, anyone? – and by Hollywood-ing his chosen ‘true story’, Berg romanticises the tragedy at it’s heart into a more palatable reality. Ironically, it’s precisely his insistence on this being a true story that makes Lone Survivor’s liberal sprinklings of movie magic so obvious, and so jarring.
Similarly, it’s one Major Debate Moment suffers from the same tonal mismatch. As the soldiers argue over whether to dispatch the civilians they’re discovered by, the row feels realistic and refreshing in it’s direct tackling of such rarely discussed situations. Until the camera zooms in on Marky Mark playing moral crusader – “I don’t like it” – and the whole thing starts to feel like an aftershave advert.
What you make of Lone Survivor will ultimately depend on your opinions about the war on terror, and war films in general. Hawks will relish this hymn to American heroism; those with reservations about America’s ‘forgotten war’ will have their unease reinforced. Berg both references, and runs away from the debate in a way that’s unsatisfying in either direction, and this is Lone Survivor’s starkest flaw. Wahlberg’s final line, “You are never out of the fight”, serves as fitting summary of this film’s struggle to know quite what it makes of the fight itself.
Lone Survivor is out in UK cinemas from January 31st 2014