Beginning with a montage of footage of a Navy SEALs training camp and the physical endurance and camaraderie therein, Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor seems like a film intended to cleanse the US military’s already tarnished reputation. However, the film is a little more complex than that, though it’s chipping away at the edifice of a military power too often represented as faultless and omnipotent are ultimately undercut by its mise-en-scène and a traditionally bombastic ending.
Lone Survivor is set in Afghanistan in 2005 during a seemingly everyday mission to murder Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (introduced beheading a supporter of the American occupying force – the only contextualising that this mission, entitled Operation Red Wings, receives). They fly into the area, walk into position and almost immediately their cover is blown and the radio doesn’t work. The four Navy SEALs (Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch) are left stranded with a huge enemy force hunting them down. As is evident from the title, only one, Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg) survives.
The SEALs are caught so quickly and, in a way, so inevitably – by a group of three sheepherders – that the film does not say much for American tactics in the war in Afghanistan. This is not a film about America taking control in a volatile region. Indeed, strip the film of its modern technology and this could be a Vietnam film, yet another war story about suffering Americans fighting an unknown enemy in the woods without any useful analysis of the victims on the other side of the battle or of the motives for America’s initial involvement. Taken this way, as a film about a past war rather than a film about current affairs (which, of course, it is), Lone Survivor is a reasonably successful simplistic war film. The action sequences are well put together and the actors are all reasonable, especially when taking into account their strictly by the numbers characterisation. The desperation and exhaustion of the characters and the confusion of the battle are brought out with great virtuosity in the editing, camerawork and sound mixing. It is the film’s middle section (of the hunt and the gun battles) that is the film’s primary focus and its major calling card, both the beginning and the ending being strictly generic – all remarkably similar to such straight-to-DVD fare as, say, France’s Special Forces. If any further significance lies within the film, it is purely up to each member of the audience’s own political leanings to seek it out.
It is difficult to know how seriously to take a film like Lone Survivor, one that is so contemporary in its themes and situations and yet staunchly avoids being anything more than a film about four soldiers’ experiences in a battle. Is it worth writing about specifics when the film attempts to be so general? Ultimately, the best answer is given by a film like Captain Phillips, which strives for both a realistic representation of a specific event but does not avoid the general picture, referring to it here and there by inference and pointed dialogue. Something as contemporary as Lone Survivor does need to be thought of in terms of current affairs, since its images of Taliban villains, wholesome American soldiers and army helicopters that can mow down an army of bad Afghans without hurting a single good Afghan are all helplessly loaded. A debate about whether or not to kill the sheepherders that spot them suggests a more critical view of the army but it is soon dismissed as not the American army’s way of doing things, despite the fact that, on many occasions today and in recent history, it has been. Clean images of dirty wars always need to be questioned, and as well made as Lone Survivor may be in the specific, in the general it presents a conservative and misleading picture. The key question is probably that images such as these are normalising, that we are getting used to seeing men with turbans as villains. Why, for instance, do we hear a lot of American groans of pain, but every Afghan we see getting killed in the film remain silent as the blood spurts out and they fall to the ground? The film does dehumanise the bad Afghans and the film’s action sequences frequently resort to POV shots in a way that recalls video games in an odd attempt to give the audience some kind of vicarious thrill very time a perfectly aimed shot blows away another faceless, voiceless Afghan. War is not the stuff of action films and any film that represents war as action (harmless and to be enjoyed) raises questions of its ideology and of its intent as propaganda for a war and a military power that are far from popular.
Further, although the film is clearly not about “America taking control in a volatile region” to quote this very review, such apparent criticisms are undermined by the fact that, in the end, the Americans get their act together to mow the bad guys down (minus, apparently, any collateral damage) and, most significantly, the film does not address the discord and effects of such a failed mission in this region. Ultimately, the film concludes with American power reinstated and, hence, could be said despite everything to be a film in which America does take control in a volatile region. In fact, the film could even be said to suggest an alternative to sending Navy SEALs into risky situations – to send in helicopters equipped with machine guns or, taking current affairs into account, drones.
Lone Survivor is, hence, a well-put together action film, though it is too heavily influenced by the visuals of “Call of Duty”, which leads it down a thoroughly unsavoury direction. Worse, its representation of war as action undercuts its seriousness as a film about humans suffering under extreme situations and its emphasis on ‘the brotherhood’ ends up having only an ideological intent. As it is, then, it is another American film that rewrites history and tries to sanctify dirty foreign policies.