A Brotherhood’s Broken Mission
There is a strange and powerful dissonance that bookends Lone Survivor, director Peter Berg’s immersive and insular new war film. It begins with archival footage of Navy SEALs in training, pushed to all capacities of endurance often falling out of consciousness, summoned back to life with commanders yelling things like, “Keep Going!” The training regimens are brutal and intentionally fraternal. The ending, once we have witnessed a mission gone wrong, calls upon another collage of images, this time of fallen marines with their former wives and families. The smiles, the happiness, and the innocence of those moments, as intended, hits you in the gut.
Ostensibly this is a propaganda tactic, but the reality is far less a patriotic ploy. There’s a blurriness here in how Berg feels about the war, about politics, and about a soldier’s life. But the clarity is most prevalent depicting the SEALs with whom you’ve spent two hours attached to their hip. War movies can be investigative from the ground level to the Oval Office, scrutinizing emotionally driven rule-breaking to the disconnected decisions of suits in charge. Berg eliminates any global questions or too much tactical information and just throws you into the insular mission of four marines.
The title of course implies things go terribly wrong and they do. Lone Survivor is based on the memoir of Marcus Lutrell, the last surviving SEAL (played dutifully by Mark Wahlberg) of Operation Red Wings, a 2005 mission enacted to terminate a Taliban leader in Afghanistan. On the U.S. compound, Lutrell’s three other teammates Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Axe Axelson (Ben Foster) and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) joke and retell old stories as well as haze a rookie (Alexander Ludwig). The atmosphere is breezy but grounded by the impending operation. It’s eventually given by their commander (Eric Bana) and the briefing allows everyone to spit military argot.
They’re helicoptered into the Afghan mountains but before the team can establish their game plan, they experience an unexpected ethical choice. Three goatherds approach their path, ambiguous in their affiliations. This sparks crucial debate between the four SEALs, who weigh the options of letting them free, tying them as prisoners, or compromising them. The members are split and Murphy ultimately chooses to let them go. The decision will haunt and quickly engulf them into a chaotic firefight against a Taliban army.
Berg uses this scene to establish the tight fraternal bond between these four men, isolated in the wooded cavernous labyrinth. The camera swerves to each of them in one motion as they determine their new plan. Pretty soon, caught in a barrage of bullets, the individuals become indecipherable, their faces painted with mud, sweat, and blood. You can’t tell Wahlberg apart from Kitsch. It’s part of the circumstance but it allows Berg to accentuate the men’s brethren bond with each other, no one soldier above the other.
It’s in the midst of combat where the intensity continues to pound. The action is disorienting and visceral and Berg, along with cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, throws you right into the crosshairs of the scope. At multiple points the SEALs must jump off a cliff and the camera follows their uncontrollable fall inches from their bruising bodies. The sound is also heightened and you feel every brush with death. In both the quiet and grenade-whistling calamity, the men’s gasping breaths dictate the tempo. They start heavy and hushed and quickly become short and wheezing, depleted and intoxicated from shrapnel.
Berg, if we excuse the obscure Battleship from last year, has shown his ability in humanizing the extremely brutal. He did it in Friday Night Lights, another intimate journey with a team emotionally and powerfully connected. Here the physicality isn’t displayed in linebackers dishing out concussions; it’s in the will to survive. At one point, Wahlberg thumps down a rocky canyon and loses his rifle for a moment. “God’s looking out for us,” he says once he finds it. The weapon is an extension of masculinity but also life preservation. Only in this wartime context does this feel like a universally accepted sentiment.
Once we have escaped the guerilla warfare and enter into the third act, specifically an anti-Taliban Pashtun village, Berg loses the chemistry. Luttrell finds aid from one of these villagers and the final twenty minutes is about retrieving him from more war. This is not a Kathryn Bigelow film, which acts as a detriment but also keeps this movie in focus. Once other players become involved in this mission and pacing finally downshifts, transnational questions arise. But these will mostly occur after the credits end, because while you’re in the moment, it’s hard to get out.