Lone Survivor and the task of reviewing war films

Few benefits exist for the month-late moviegoer, but one is the ability to consume reactions to a film before the film itself if you choose.

This was my experience with Lone Survivor, Peter Berg’s film about Operation Red Wings and the one Navy SEAL (Marcus Luttrell, played by Mark Wahlberg) who made it out alive. I finally saw it after reading through an array of reviews that stretched from solid film to an overcooked tribute that ultimately accomplished little.

Let’s run through a few of those reviews quickly.

A.O. Scott in The New York Times cited the film’s “professionalism” as its trademark characteristic. Scott called it a “modest” film concerned more with showing how a job was done than delving too deep into the myriad political and moral layers that engross military conflicts.

Noel Murray of The Dissolve discussed the movie’s simplicity – the film leans heavily on the fighting itself, putting you on the Afghanistan mountain amid the incessant buzz of rifle fire – but called it a “handicap.” By zooming so close into battle, Murray writes, the film is a “two-hour salute” to courage of soldiers but doesn’t offer any nuanced discussion regarding the men themselves or the string of consequence-laden decisions made that put them on the mountain. He writes:

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Not every war movie has to conclude that violence never solved anything, or that the military dehumanizes soldiers. There’s plenty of room in the cinematic spectrum for a throwback gung-ho combat picture.

Wesley Morris’ review in Grantland might be the most thoughtful of the bunch I read and certainly the closest examination of Berg’s work as the director. Morris handled it delicately, noting the reverence and respect Berg obviously feels for these SEALs while also referring to the “blandness” of the film, noting the lack of introspection or development of individual characters.

Michael O’Sullivan of The Washington Post writes that Lone Survivor missed an opportunity to make a connection. He argues that we needed someone to feel for – beyond the obvious horror and pain we feel for the SEALs in the middle of a bloody fight – and become invested in, which wasn’t really delivered through any one character, including Luttrell.

Michael writes (without spoiling it) that the most compelling character comes in the final minutes of the film and isn’t explored nearly enough. Since the movie has been out a month, I will finish the job and surmise he’s referring to Muhammad Gulab, the Afghan who came across the injured Luttrell on the mountain and brought him back to his village, ultimately saving him despite a firefight with the Taliban.

That Gulab would make this choice – protecting an American soldier while knowing the cost could be the slaughter of every individual, children included, in his village – is fascinating and could have (should have?) received more attention in the film.

All of those reviews – plus this one by Betsy Sharkey in The Los Angeles Times — are worth your time if you want a full-range evaluation of Berg’s film.

One I want to spend a few minutes on, though, is Kyle Smith’s in The New York Post, because I (respectfully) disagree with a handful of things, even vehemently in some instances, and it also shows the slipperiness of critiquing war films.

Smith begins his review with this sentence:

If a movie in which every Navy SEAL but one dies violently can be a feature-length recruitment video, “Lone Survivor” is it.

Smith certainly isn’t the only to make that point, that the tones of American pride in Berg’s film – it begins with what seems to be real footage of SEALs training, playing up the bond built through cruel training that very few among us can achieve – could be seen as a pitch to young men everywhere to take up America’s fight. There’s no “right” answer, of course, but I didn’t see Berg’s film that way at all.

Lone Survivor was perhaps the most uncomfortable viewing experience I’ve ever had, probably made worse by the fact you understand mass death is imminent only to excruciatingly plod along and wait to see how it’s delivered. It was a nauseating two-hour walk that left me emotionally paralyzed.

The film was certainly powerful, although I don’t know if I would have called it “good” in the sense that we normally call movies “good” when we enjoy them and would welcome seeing them again. Lone Survivor is something everyone should see once and then never again. Can that really be a “recruitment video” for serving in the military?

Smith touches on one of the few scenes in the film where Berg presents an obvious moral dilemma to the SEALs.

They are discovered by goat herders – one young child, one young man and one old man – and are forced to make a decision to let them free, tie them up and leave them or kill them. A couple of the SEALs are concerned about setting them free for fear this will lead to a Taliban ambush (which is what happens) and express little regard for killing them and getting the hell out of an already-compromised mission. Smith writes:

The most disturbing element of Berg’s script is that he seems to think the former course would have been the wiser one: Troops should waste any civilian who might be with the bad guys. War is messy, but it’s also not an excuse for wanton slaughter.

This reads more like Smith projecting his own moralistic views onto Berg than what the filmmaker was actually expressing. It also runs counter to what seems to be the film’s chief criticism – that it explicitly avoids these moral discussions, or any complex analysis of a war’s consequences, when perhaps it shouldn’t have.

Smith also calls out the joking banter the SEALs engage in while fighting, writing it “sounds much more like a Hollywood screenwriter with his feet on the desk than men facing their mortality” – don’t you think this is a detail Berg would have gone to great pains to get right, considering heaping a false lightness on these scenes would be among the most egregious errors he could have made? – before concluding that, for as effective and gripping as the visuals and sounds are in this film, it lacks a point.

In Smith’s words:

But to what end? This is a movie about an irrelevant skirmish that ended in near-total catastrophe, during a war we are not winning. The nearest analogue I could think of was “Black Hawk Down,” but Ridley Scott’s dirge didn’t affect the larkish tone of Berg’s, in which every man seems to think he’s in a merry adventure. Pull back a bit from the jingoism and it’s hard to see what was purchased with so much brave young blood.

Well, then.

I’d disagree that the film lacked a point – again, as Murray alluded to, does every war film need a grand conclusion? Can’t a raw depiction of the brutality soldiers face in combat be enough?

But beyond that, in his attempt to critically analyze Lone Survivor and drive home his conclusion, Smith’s choice of “irrelevant” when describing Operation Red Wings comes across as incredibly disrespectful and, really, simply disgraceful.

Yet this is the reality we face with war film reviews: Some just aren’t meant to be mined for greater meaning. Instead of proving a point, some are just meant to say, “Hey, idiot, this is what some sacrifice in their service.”

Do I think Smith meant to offend or disrespect? Of course not. It was a poor choice made while trying to aggressively critique a film that I’m not sure can be dissected like others in its category.

If Berg took a strong political and moral stance in Lone Survivor, his argument, like all others, would be open to rebuttals and counter-evidence.

But he didn’t. He just dropped you in a war zone and left you there, showing what it feels like to engage in deadly battle and letting you decide what else you want to take from that.

As the credits rolled, my very first thought after the numbness wore off was, “I’m glad I don’t have to review that.”

Not because it was complex or overdone or unworthy, but because, as seemed to be Berg’s intent, I didn’t know what else there was to say about a film revolving entirely around four men scaling a foreign mountain and only one coming back.

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com

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