Lone Survivor, the new Peter Berg war movie that is out in exceptionally limited release today and will go wide later in January, is based on a true story. The story in question is of a failed military operation, in which four Navy SEALs were sent out into the wilds of Afghanistan to scout an assassination target. But almost as soon as they get out there, the four soldiers in question — played by Taylor Kitsch, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch — run into trouble. Wayward shepherds stumble upon them, and within a very short timeframe they find themselves in a shootout. Only one — and here I’m not spoiling, just look at the title — makes it out alive.
A different filmmaker probably would have seen the easy metaphor here for the lessons (or lack thereof) of the war in Afghanistan. Here you have people sent out, with insufficient cover, in unfamiliar territory and with a hostile population, and from the outset of the movie we know that success is not in the cards for them. They will not come out unscathed. And we also know that the small, limited target they allegedly have — the one Taliban leader these men have been sent out to assassinate — is not a game-changer of a mission. Pick this guy off and forty others will take his place, we know, because the last few years have taught us that. Had things gone differently for these soldiers on this particular outlay, the next might very well have been their last anyway. That’s the way of these things.
Peter Berg, however, sidesteps attaching any political importance, or indeed any political context whatsoever, to the story he wants to tell. In this movie completely devoid of irony or critical consciousness or, weirdly, any bitterness whatsoever, he’s just telling the story of a bunch of brave guys who left their brave girlfriends to fight a brave war for their brave country in hostile Afghanistan. It is the most unabashedly straightforward take on war I think I have seen in my adult life, at least when we’re talking about “serious” films. No one nods at any point to what is sometimes called “the pity of war.” And as such it feels very much like a movie made by someone who has never seen any war movies; it is totally uninflected by Platoon or Apocalypse Now or, hell, Saving Private Ryan.
What Lone Survivor does refer out to is the aesthetic Berg himself deployed to great effect in the television version of Friday Night Lights. There, he somehow managed to take a sport drenched in macho cliché and come up with something that profoundly touched the kind of television audience that usually considers itself far too cynical for such things. I confess that I wasn’t a big Friday Night Lights fan — it always celebrated the small-town sports culture to a degree that struck me as a touch naïve — but I could always see, within it, that he had a talent for bringing the audience up to the edge of sentimentality and then knowing exactly when to stop. He really knew how to move an audience.
I wish it worked to similar effect in Lone Survivor, but it simply doesn’t. Every time this film cuts to the sky and the guitar strings kick up, it is hard not to groan aloud. Let’s put aside the staggering lack of imagination it suggests on Berg’s part, the implication he’s making that he is only capable of achieving one kind of look, with one very specific kind of soundtrack. But worse it signals, to the people in the audience who recognize it, a kind of equivalence between his treatment of football and his treatment of war. And only a complete idiot would make that equation. Perhaps Berg doesn’t mean to be equating things, perhaps it’s unintentional. It still casts a tacky pall over his whole enterprise.
And this is a story that deserved a better quality of light. The thing is, there is a really profound story in the raw material of Lone Survivor. It is a story in part about why soldiers have to take a limited view of their role in the war, because it is impossible to do what they have to do if you’re always thinking about wide, geopolitical implications, always second-guessing. And it is possible to make a movie that understands that. But such a movie would also have to understand that for the rest of us, all we see when we look at wars is delusion and waste, and a bunch of kids out there in the forest paying the price for that. It would be, I think, more respectful of the actual sacrifice soldiers make to see that and write through it. But instead, Lone Survivor goes for the easy, even propagandistic cliché every time. It’s instead a movie that believes that in order to make the death of Ben Foster’s character a noble one, he has to spit out lines like, “You die for your country, but I’m gonna live for mine,” as he cocks that gun.