Lone Survivor (2014), directed by Peter Berg
What exactly is the point of Lone Survivor? What are we supposed to take away from it?
This is the question I could not stop mulling over as I left a screening of the new Peter Berg film shocked and shaken, feeling slightly lost and downtrodden.
I certainly hadn’t enjoyed it, I knew that much. There is much in the film to be admired, from the incredible landscapes and cinematography, to Berg’s opening montage from real footage of Navy SEAL training, to the attention to detail and the obvious intention to portrait events as accurately as possible.
The score, from Texan instrumental band Explosions in the Sky, was impressively emotive, reminding me of the best of their work with Berg on his movie and TV series Friday Night Lights, one of my all-time favourites. Berg’s usual flourishes were also enjoyable, he’s one of the few working directors who seems to be able to use handheld camera work effectively.
But none of this helped me to overcome the feeling I was watching something I really didn’t want to watch, for any reason, entertainment, enrichment or otherwise.
The problem with the film is in its focus. It’s essentially two hours of the hell these guys went through. I get the intention to make us realize the hardships and brutal deaths by rubbing our noses in it, but it’s gruelling to watch and in the end does little to make us care more about these characters as people.
There seemed to be a lost opportunity to show the audience who these men, these names on the page, really were, beyond some perfunctory photos of wives back home and some macho boys-being-boys camaraderie before heading out on mission.
The impressive opening montage gave us a brief sense of how these individuals are shaped into a band of brothers and the film could have been better served by much more along this vein, rather than bullet after bullet thwacking through arms and torsos.
Without the character building film played like an episode of Friday Night Lights with only football. And football was never what made that show great.
For another comparison, the film feels like a Passion of the Christ for military worshippers. It’s exhausting watching the soldiers shoot Afghani after Afghani, get shot themselves, fall down cliffs, take shrapnel and, for all but the titular hero, die. Much like Passion, we are expected to feel more for these characters by understanding the pain they experienced.
Maybe it’s because I knew nothing about these events before seeing the movie, but I found the film had the opposite effect. It was hard to watch. I didn’t want to watch anymore. I covered my eyes at one point. And all because I knew so very little about these guys, beyond a couple were married and one was getting married and Ben Foster’s eyes are like glacial lakes I get lost in every closeup he has.
It was sad seeing what happened to them, of course, and it made me shake my head at the pointlessness of war. And that’s fine if it was the point of the movie, but in this case the point seemed to be the characters, the real men who fought and died, and the approach worked against the intent.
It was honestly numbing, an outcome I doubt Berg had in mind. It’s so intense and overwhelming I found it very hard to stay engaged. My mind had to retreat. And I’m not sorry for it, because I never felt the intent was worth the hardship, as it is in a film such as 12 Years a Slave, or something similarly difficult to watch.
I will say I’m glad Berg gave the Afghanis who helped save the US soldier the credit they deserve. So much of the film is an angry Arab people shooting gallery (which is accurate, so it’s OK? I’m not sure), that it was a welcoming relief to see other Arab characters played with humanism and compassion.
Thinking and writing about it now I am still conflicted, because it is so well made and Berg is great at what he does. I appreciate the dedication with which the film was made. But I didn’t enjoy watching it, I don’t feel I am richer for the experience and I have no desire to ever see it again. That’s not a great outcome.
Lone Survivor is in cinemas now.