I have seen few movies more vicious, ugly, and mean-spirited than Lone Survivor. It pains me to say this, because it leaves me open to knee-jerk assertions that I somehow do not “support the troops”. Indeed, the movie justifies its existence on the backs of those willing to fight and die for my country.
Based on the memoir by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Lone Survivor covers Operation Red Wings, an attempt to capture or kill a Taliban commander in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. As you can guess from the title, it did not go well. For one thing, after hiking over the neighboring mountain, the team (Wahlberh, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster) find that there’s more than a handful of Taliban soldiers in the village.
But then three goatherds stumble across the team, who quickly capture the old man and two boys. After some debate it’s decided to let them go, reestablish communication with base, and get out of here, mission unaccomplished. But as soon as they’re free, the older boy rushes down the mountain to alert the Taliban in the village, bringing dozens of heavily-armed soldiers down on the isolated four-man SEAL team.
It’s in the ensuing extended combat that we learn what the real point of the movie is. Not content with the usual level of reverence for the bravery of soldiers, director Peter Berg focuses makes this a study in masochism. Taliban fighters are cut down by the dozen in quick, clean kills, as plentiful and disposable as Call of Duty enemies. Not so for the Americans; almost every hit they take is to an extremity. Berg lingers, leeringly over every gunshot to a hand, or foot, or leg, or shoulder. Every impact as the SEALs jump down two shale cliff faces and are blown down even more is carefully preserved and Foley-enhanced. Look close at the stumps of this man’s fingers, and then at that one’s compound fracture as he digs out shrapnel with a knife. The last movie I saw take such pleasure in suffering was The Passion of the Christ; before that, Hellraiser.
Steve McQueen received criticism for the graphic imagery he included in 12 Years a Slave, but those instances were isolated highlights intending to communicate an important point, and it never felt like McQueen enjoyed it. Berg, on the other hand, luxuriates in the pain he scatters wherever he can fit it in, and the point goes beyond mere glorification of American bravery.
Every pain these men endure, it says, shows how much they love their country — your country — and the more they endure the greater they are, and the greater their deeds along with them. The willingness of these men to give themselves up to such pain justifies any actions they might take. This is the same logic we excoriated in the monks from The Da Vinci Code, but because these are U.S. soldiers we are supposed to love them for it.
And I have no doubt many people will love them for it, just as much as for the way they’re clearly laid out as white, Christian, hypermasculine, and homophobic. That litany Alexander Ludwig recites in the trailer? what they cut out from the movie’s version is all the boasting about his sexual virility. The only ones who glorify and mythologize these men more than the movie are themselves. And boy, do they, down to uttering clichés like “you can die for your country; I’m gonna live for mine” with no apparent sense of irony that the speaker is, in fact, part of an occupying force hunting down a group that — nasty as they are — is largely confined to its own homeland. They even bring a fully-loaded troop transport helicopter into an active firefight with no gunship support, evidently expecting God and their own badassery to save them, and act surprised when it gets shot down.
The men I see in this movie are unquestionably brave, but I see foolhardiness rather than glory in their deaths. Plenty of others may worship their pain, but I see excess and waste and spin-doctoring trying to massage the image of Special Forces in the wake of Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars.
And the film wears its image-consciousness on its sleeve; in the end, the team did not set its captives free because it would be wrong to slaughter old men and children, but because they worried how it would look on the news when the bodies were eventually found. Even then, it’s hard to miss that the strongest advocate of not killing kids — that paragon of goodness and mercy — is the one man who lived to tell about it, and on whose word the entire narrative rests.