With Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper having just opened this weekend to astonishing US box office figures, it seemed timely to revisit my review of Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor.
In 2005 a Navy SEAL reconnaissance team was inserted onto the slopes of the Sawtalo Sar mountain in the Kunar region of Afghanistan. Part of a larger joint operation, the team’s mission was to observe a settlement believed to be used by a local Taliban leader, confirm his presence, and then to either capture or kill him. To say the mission did not run by the numbers would be a very severe understatement. A chance encounter with some shepherds forced the soldiers to make a choice between complying with rules of engagement or ignoring them. The choice they made led to a ferocious and sustained gunfight, with the SEALS unable to call for reinforcements due to a failure of communications equipment. This is the bare bones of the true life story dramatised in Lone Survivor.
Considered as a pure action film, Lone Survivor is excellent. It is tense, exciting, and enables you to invest in these characters. I found the fire-fight at the centre of the film harrowing because I cared about these men. Berg’s script does occasionally throw out some cheesy lines like Foster murmuring ‘I am the reaper’, as he looks down the sights of his rifle, but it mostly gets away with it. Where there will be a problem for some is in the film’s singular point of view. There is not any attempt to give any context to the conflict; no shadow of doubt about the justness of the mission is permitted to enter the picture. Lone Survivor is very clearly pro-US and pro-US military. This is a film about heroism under fire akin to a modern version of The Sands of Iwo Jima (but thankfully far superior to The Green Berets). As such it will be charged with being propaganda, which it is, but then so are all stories. It will be interesting to see the film play with British and European audiences for whom the War on Terror is a more problematic issue without the gaping wound of 9/11 being so keenly felt.
When the action erupts it is extraordinary. Attempting to retreat the four men are forced into a run and gun fire fight as they attempt to reach an extraction point. Fighting on the side of a mountain against a numerically superior enemy inevitably involves making desperate decisions. Whereas Zero Dark Thirty took a rigorous Cinéma Vérité approach to the depiction of close quarters combat, writer/director Peter Berg uses a variety of film making tricks, such as varying the frame speed within a continuous take and expressive sound editing. Unlike the Michael Bay school, these techniques are not used solely because they look cool. Although there are undeniably a few ‘hero’ shots in the mix, these are often undercut by the following shot. For instance a classic action freeze of men leaping into the void against an explosive backdrop is immediately followed by bodies smashing into terrain. Combat is shown as a gory process of attrition.
Berg is turning out to be the spiritual son of John Milius. A former actor (he was the lead in Wes Craven’s forgotten Shocker) Berg has transitioned to a successful career as a director. His body of work is variable but common themes and film making style are emerging, perhaps enough to mount a case for his consideration as an auteur. Thanks to risk averse modern Hollywood, Berg has been less consistent than Milius in his prime; having also made popcorn fodder like Hancock and Battleship. Then again, Milius made Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn.
Skilled at exploring the dynamics of masculine relationships, Berg’s films eschew cynicism in favour of celebrating heroism (even his superhero movie Hancock refashioned Superman as a trailer park dwelling working class hero). This is combined with open and consistent celebration of American patriotism, can be interpreted as indicating a right leaning political viewpoint. Unlike Milius he pulls back from overt political messages. His best work combines traditional American values, a deep interest in character based stories and an adventurous and innovative film making style; the pinnacle of his career to date being the 2004 film Friday Night Lights the (arguably even better) television series by the same name (2006-2009).
At a glance, Friday Night Lights and Lone Survivor seem poles apart – one an intimate but sprawling drama about a Texas high school football team, and the other a brutal and focussed military action film. In fact, they cover a remarkable amount of common yardage. They examine productive team dynamics; feature senior authority figures; find American patriotism, sacrifice and heroism all qualities to be celebrated. Then there is Taylor Kitsch whose star rose playing bad-boy quarterback Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights (TV version), before the twin flops of John Carter and Berg’s own Battleship brought it crashing back down.
Perhaps surprisingly there are more stylistic similarities with Friday Night Lights than with Battleship. They share a handheld shooting style that puts the viewer into the huddle with the team. The cinematography of Tobias Schliesser (who shot the Friday Night Lights movie) is simply beautiful with stunning New Mexico locations filling in for Afghanistan. Berg has a habit of freezing and holding shots of his characters in quiet moments of personal stress as if inviting the audience to gaze into their souls. The music of Texan post-rock band Explosions in the Sky also provides a common sound bed of shimmering guitars.
All four of Lone Survivor’s lead performances are solid. While the poster and trailer present it as if the film is a Mark Wahlberg’s star vehicle (the actor is also a producer) it is very much an ensemble piece. Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster and Taylor Kitsch deliver great performances as the other SEALs. Hirsh, most recently seen as a puffy man-child in David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche clearly hit the gym hard after completing that film. Ben Foster continues to be one of the best kept secrets in Hollywood. Kitsch as the team leader has bulked up an incredible amount and appears to have become the love child of Keanu Reeves and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but his performance is excellent. Initially Wahlberg is the least interesting of the four; we don’t really get given a sense of his character’s life outside the Marine Corps. This seems quite deliberate in light of later events, and he comes into his own later in the film. There is no showboating in any of these performances, all the actors are committed to their parts and respect the chain of command.
This is a movie that is intended to fill American hearts with pride. As such it exemplifies the motto of the Dillon Panthers, ”Clear eyes. Full hearts, can’t lose”.
This review previously appeared on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk