LONE SURVIVOR Movie Review: American Martyrs, Killed In Bloody Detail

Peter Berg's paean to the Navy SEALs misses the real story of courage.

There’s a true, inspiring hero in Lone Survivor. He is a man with a son, a man who is stuck in a situation he didn’t make and he didn’t ask for, a man who saw a wrong and took action to right it, no matter the cost to himself and his people. But the movie isn’t about that man. That man is an Afghani villager, and he doesn’t even get a name in the movie.

Lone Survivor is based on a true story (or ‘true acts of courage,’ as the poster tagline says), and it is a movie that is obsessed with veracity when it comes to the men who serve in the elite Navy SEALs. But truth isn’t just a series of events, it’s the context of those events, and Lone Survivor has no time for that context, and no time to look at the story it’s telling from any point of view except for that of the best-equipped, most highly trained fighting men on Earth who are embroiled in the fourth year of a quagmire war with tribal people who they do not understand at all.

Four SEALs are tasked with removing a small-time Afghan warlord who, we see in the opening of the film, has been terrorizing the locals. They’re real men, men who get up and race around the base before their morning coffee and yet also have sweet exchanges with their wives via instant messengers. They’re professional men, men who are ready at a moment’s notice to do their job and to do it well. They’re brave men, men who stand courageous when the mission goes FUBAR, who keep fighting even when their fingers are shot off or when they fall down the side of a mountain three times during a firefight.

Writer/director Peter Berg loves these men. Basically he worships them, fetishizing their masculine discipline and their bonds of brotherhood. Three of the SEALs on this mission will die - the title gives that away - and Berg sees these men as martyrs. He shoots their every wound - and they suffer dozens, because while it takes one or two bullets to kill an Afghani it takes ten just to slow an American down - with a loving attention that calls to mind Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Every cut, every broken bone, every bullet hole is highlighted and given its own moment.

“There is no such thing as an anti-war film,” Truffaut famously said, talking about the way cinema makes even the most horrific war violence exciting. Lone Survivor is most assuredly not an anti-war film - I’m sure Berg is one of those guys who claim agnosticism when it comes to the actual conflicts but it’s hard to lionize fighting men without being inherently pro-war - but it’s more than that. The movie is propaganda, a recruiting tool. The violence visited upon the soldiers is aspirational violence, a violence that proves their brotherhood and their masculinity. The film opens with a montage of SEAL training that shows how these men push and punish themselves daily, and while that sort of stuff may turn off people like you and me, there is a certain segment of the population who sees men being tortured by drill instructors and wants to get involved. The same goes for the violence done to the SEALs in the film; the movie makes these guys seem worthy of dying hard, unlike the Afghans who die easily and quickly. You and I may watch Lone Survivor and think “There is no way I would ever want to be those guys,” but there will be young men who walk out of this movie doubly interested in trying themselves to become elite Navy SEALs.

That’s not really a critique, it’s more an analysis. Where it falls into critique is the way that Berg uses it cinematically; the bulk of the movie is made up of a gun battle between the four SEALs and a horde of Afghan fighters  that goes for the intense, you-are-there feel of a movie like Black Hawk Down. But Berg is no Ridley Scott, and his lengthy action sequence - while intense and sometimes harrowing - never kicked thelegs out from under me the way Black Hawk Down did. And forget comparing it to the other great combat movie of our time, Saving Private Ryan, as Lone Survivor has none of the painful moral complexity and cinematic inventiveness Spielberg brought to that film. Watching the Lone Survivor battle I became acutely aware I was seeing Hollywood actors (all of whom are pretty good, especially Taylor Kitsch, who has found the right role for his brand of semi-dimensional heroism) firing at people who are out of frame and then watching stunt guys and extras fall down in a cutaway.

There are a couple of moments where Berg does something interesting, using a first person scope viewpoint. Video games are creating the new language of combat action, and the first person shooter POV works on that level. But that’s about the most interesting part of the actual action sequence, which keeps going into slow motion to highlight each injury sustained by the SEALs. The action is fine, but what makes it unique is its unrelenting length as opposed to any actual cinematic quality.

I found myself frustrated by Berg’s dancing right on the edge of being thoughtful. The mission goes bad when the SEALs, waiting for dark in order to eliminate their target, are accidentally found by an old goatherd and two boys who are in league with the bad guys. The local mountains are screwing with the SEAL comms, and so the men get into a debate about how to deal with the situation. They can let the Afghans go, and they’ll definitely alert the local fighters to their presence. They can leave the trio tied up in the mountain, but they’ll almost certainly freeze to death overnight. Or they can kill the goatherd and the two boys, ending any danger immediately. Two of the SEALs are for the ASAP termination of the Afghans, while the other two argue against it.

Atrocities happen in war, and while it’s comforting to imagine the men who engage in them are monsters the reality is that they’re human, and often scared humans. Here Berg has the characters talk through the process of potentially committing a war crime, and he allows each of them to lay out a logically sound reason for their argument. This is good stuff, and it’s important stuff, and it’s the kind of thing that adds context to what is otherwise a movie bereft of nuance. For a brief moment Lone Survivor became a movie I might have wanted to see, a movie that examines fighting more than it simply depicts them.

Lone Survivor is based on the memoir of the same name by Marcus Luttrell, a man whose will and discipline and endurance I cannot ever hope to match. But it seems to me that Luttrell isn’t the hero of his own story. That hero is Mohammed Gulab, the guy I talked about at the beginning of this review. Gulab doesn’t even get a name in the film (he’s identified at the end of a montage of pictures of the real SEALs who lost their lives in the events depicted), but if there are true acts of courage to be celebrated, they’re his, and those of the people of his village. Marcus Luttrell and his SEAL comrades were among the most prepared and highly trained fighters alive, and they volunteered to be where they were. They wanted to be there. Civilian Gulab and his people found themselves in the middle of a war, with awful Taliban fighters on one side and indiscriminate Americans on the other (in the film Luttrell is unaware of tribal differences between Afghanis, and seems to think all locals are Taliban). In that situation this man and his fellow villagers showed a bravery and decency that floors me more than any of the wounds sustained by the SEALs. He could have left Luttrell to die, he could have stayed out of the way of the conflict around him, but he chose to get involved.

If Peter Berg wasn’t so starstruck by the Navy SEALs he would have seen the stunning story of courage in front of him. Lone Survivor is a story that an empire tells itself so it can still feel like the underdog, the little guy, the scrapper. The reality is that Mohammed Gulab’s heroism feels like the most iconically American thing in this movie - a guy standing up to bullies in order to help an injured man.