Monday, December 23, 2013

LONE SURVIVOR Is War-As-Videogame


- Lone Survivor delivers some of the most intense, non-stop action I've seen in a movie in a long while. Few films present such a sustained level of rapid-fire violence, and few films present it in such a hard-hitting, visceral manner. When you come out of Lone Survivor, you feel like you've just endured one hell of a battle. And yet, Lone Survivor is not ostensibly an action movie. This is meant to be a true-life tale of heroism and bravery, and the subject matter it deals with is still very raw, very fresh, very political. Oddly though, the film does little to acknowledge the context of it story. This is a survival story, plain and simple. And for that reason, I came away from the film feeling empty, unfulfilled, and to be honest, a tad bit disturbed. On one hand, the movie's ultraviolence and high body count made me question big-picture ideas: the price of warfare and violence, the cycle of violence and hate, and the cowboy mentality that often seems to characterize American military culture. The film is, after all, set in modern-day Afghanistan during a war that is still ongoing. On the other hand, the film has little interest in the issues that it inevitably raises. Really, this is a film about a bunch of badasses being badass. It's the "Call of Duty" movie, essentially.

Director Peter Berg brings the patriotic, ra-ra mentality he's known for to the film. He builds up his squad of SEALS as likable yet tough-as-nails ass-kickers. And he deserves credit for taking the time to give us some nice character moments that give each of the main players some personality, before the proverbial $#%& hits the fan.

Mark Wahlberg is the titular hero here, and he's good in the part. He is able to pull off that delicate balance of seeming like a legit badass while also coming off as an everyman. On the other end of the spectrum is Ben Foster, who may just be the show-stealer. Foster is the grizzled, dead-eyed, slightly-crazed warrior of the group, and his was likely the film's most purely entertaining performance. Foster is a guy who seems underutilized by Hollywood in general, but this is the kind of role he excels at. Even if the script doesn't go too far into the underlying psyches of these guys, a lot of what you need to know is right there in Foster's eyes.

The rest of the cast, from Emile Hirsch to Taylor Kitsch to Eric Bana, is quite good. There's no shortage of great actors in the movie, and there's a natural chemistry between the leads. They do indeed feel like a band of brothers, like a group of guys that's been to hell and back together.

Where Lone Survivor gets sort of weird though is in its conspicuous lack of focus on the big-picture of its plot. Once the action ramps up - once our SEAL team's mission goes to hell and they end up being exposed and hunted in the Afghan hills - the entire movie is 100% concerned with being in-the-moment. But there's a weird discrepancy between the film's nonstop, visceral run n' gun action and the larger context of what we're seeing. We're seeing members of the SEAL team shot at, injured, bloodied, and brutally killed. We're seeing them coldly and dutifully do the same thing to Afghan foot soldiers. Yes, it's kill or be killed, and yes, the guys the SEALS are shooting down are presumably linked to terrorist organizations and are acting with the goal of protecting the terrorist leader whose assassination was the SEAL's primary objective. But still. The movie lacks any real meditative or self-reflective quality about the sheer horror of what it's presenting to us. The movie creates videogame-like you-are-there intensity, but there's a remove from any real political or moral context. As the body count piles up, my mind began to drift: the movie was in no way overtly trying to make me ruminate on the horrors of war or the endless cycle of violence that war perpetuates. And yet, that's where my thoughts were going. Like I said, a clear disconnect was forming between the story that the movie was *trying* to tell, and what it was actually telling.

And honestly, that's a bit of a problem in a movie like this. We are basically told to accept it as a given that these SEALS were great men who died valiantly. But there's also a strong feeling that they, perhaps, died needlessly. But the film is about as contemplative as your typical Medal of Honor or Call of Duty game. To his credit, Berg creates a pretty riveting, rapid-fire-assault, edge-of-your-seat action film. But to reduce an ongoing war and a real-life story of fallen soldiers to a bro-tastic videogame seems a little hollow, in my book.

It's a Catch-22, I suppose. By not politicizing the film (in an effort to have it serve more as a tribute to these real-life SEALS), it becomes politicized. It feels too gung-ho and too caught-up in paying tribute to the badassery of its protagonists. But what is the lesson of their sacrifice? What are we to take away from it? Without finding that deeper meaning in death, the film quickly fades from memory and exists only as momentary distraction.

My Grade: B

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