Sure, lots and lots of movies are about survival — like, almost all of them. The biggest movies at the box office tend to be about the survival of the human race, and plenty of comedies have life-or-death stakes. You could stretch the definition of “survival” enough to fit just about any film — the survival of love, the survival of hope, and so on.
But 2013 upped the ante on survival. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire might end up being the top-grossing film in the U.S., a film that is explicitly about it’s-them-or-me combat. There’s Gravity, in which the survival of one woman feels like the highest possible stakes. Will she survive? That’s literally the whole movie. Similarly, All Is Lost is about — and only about — the survival of one old man against the sea. (Ditto, kinda, for Captain Phillips.) The closest thing to a Best Picture frontrunner, 12 Years A Slave, is a true tale about surviving a dozen years of unthinkably brutal captivity. Likely Best Actor winner Matthew McConaughey plays a straight man surviving as long as he can with a disease that was once a death sentence in Dallas Buyers Club. And so on. This it’s only fitting that one movie will be released with a title that, essentially, sums up the whole year in film — 2013: the year of lone survivors.
It’s been close to two decades now since Saving Private Ryan redefined brutality in a war movie, and there have been a number of war movies since — many of them covering our most recent forays into battle in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few movies in the genre have at least approached Saving Private Ryan‘s gruesome gore, but none have exceeded it.
Lone Survivor is a very different film than Saving Private Ryan — it is focused almost exclusively on the plight of four Navy SEALs, rather than the whole mess of troops who landed on Omaha Beach on one of history’s most fateful days — but the combat scenes are as hard, or perhaps even harder, to watch. It’s a visceral experience. We, as the audience, feel every bullet wound, every bone breaking. Sound fun? Not really. I suspect many moviegoers will venture into the theater seeing Mark Wahlberg and Taylor Kitsch as the headliners, thinking they’re in for a standard action movie. Some might bring the kids… and many will walk out. Yeah… it’s that intense.
Lone Survivor is the true story of a small group of Navy SEALs on a mission in Afghanistan called Operation Red Wings. (It’s based on the book by real-life lone survivor Marcus Luttrell.) When they are confronted with three seemingly harmless civilians who may have Taliban connection, they’re faced with a tough choice — kill unarmed children, or risk alerting the Taliban to their presence. Eventually they decide to let the hostages go, and that’s when their trouble begins. The outcome of this story should be obvious to anyone who, you know, knows the title of the movie… and I’m not sure that knowledge does us any favors — but rather, has us bracing for things to go from really bad to even worse. Matters get very intense very quickly, and soon we’re being shot at and falling down endlessly long ravines. Technically, the combat is filmed expertly, with sound design that has us wincing in our seats as we hear bones breaking and skulls smacking against trees. These are the moments that a normal action movie might hit us with once or twice — but here, it’s just over and over.
As harrowing as those scenes are, though, writer/director Peter Berg doesn’t exactly nail the more nuanced angles of this story. We get very little detail on what Operation Red Wings is even about, so when everything goes wrong, we’re not sure how bad it is, or what should have happened instead. The higher-ups in American military — and war in general — don’t come off looking so great, but I’m not sure that was Berg’s intent. Of course, we want to see the Marines make it out alive — but we end up wondering why the hell they’re there in the first place. (Both on a micro and a macro level, really.)
The politics of Lone Survivor are a little iffy — we’re all too used to seeing dark-skinned people gunned down in foreign lands by now, but when it’s done with this much brutality, in so “serious” a movie, the bloodshed on both sides just feels… harsh. Maybe it should. But when it’s this unsettling, don’t we want to see things from more than one perspective? Don’t we want the bad guys to be more than nameless, faceless monsters? The SEALs who don’t make it to lone survivor get long, drawn out, unnervingly memorable death scenes, while we barely see the faces on the other side. Yes, Berg is putting us in the boots of these characters — for whom not seeing the enemy’s face is surely a bonus — but it only really works if you throw all moral ambiguity out the window, as is done here.
Lone Survivor takes pains, late in the game, to depict an Afghanistan village that opposes the Taliban, but it’s too little, too late; these eleventh-hour saviors are too fleeting to make much of an impact. (I suspect an even better movie might have been made focusing on what’s glossed over in this one’s third act.) For all its bone-crushing ferocity, Lone Survivor still feels too Hollywood in its approach to the wars in the Middle East, and I, for one, wasn’t rooting for either side to eliminate the other, exactly, but for all the shooting to stop.
What works best in the film is the band of brothers at the core, played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch. All four actors commit entirely to the physical challenges of their roles, and the fraternal bond between them feels authentic. Lone Survivor isn’t likely to get much attention come awards season, especially with so many other survival stories in theaters at the moment. It’s a little too slick and simple for Academy consideration — and yet, it’s also a bit more daring and intense than your typical studio fare. It may not be a great war film by any means, but it’s not one that should be too easily dismissed.