Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Cinema File #309: "Lone Survivor" Review

In retrospect, it seems pretty strange to think that Peter Berg, the man who debuted as a writer/director with the unflinchingly nihilistic Very Bad Things, would now be known for his equally unflinching patriotism. After the surprisingly enjoyable slice of sci-fi jingoism that was 2012's Battleship, Berg proved capable of making even the dumbest concept visually exciting and ultimately entertaining, earning the dubious title of The Thinking Man's Michael Bay, and now with his latest film Lone Survivor, he's applied that same commitment to a story lacking the handicap of extreme stupidity. Lone Survivor is a hard hitting and no doubt deeply personal tribute to America's military, based on a harrowing true story that manages to be mostly engaging even despite the spoiler of its title. though only if you're ready for it.

Lone Survivor is one of those movies that I can appreciate objectively, even though it belongs to a genre to which I have almost no interest in whatsoever. I can see the appeal, and more importantly I can see that it does what it sets out to do very well, but unfortunately there's a limit to how deep I can go being so far removed from the kind of person who loves these kinds of movies. If you like movies that focus on this sort of brutally realistic modern warfare, this is technically proficient though mostly bare bones in its execution of what you like. It's like Saving Private Ryan without the Spielbergian schmaltz, Three Kings without the wry sense of humor, and Black Hawk Down without the main character being based on a pedophile, or some combination thereof. In short, its basically the movie Zero Dark Thirty should have been, which is to say the last act expanded into a whole movie so that the most interesting characters, the Seal Team, have time to actually matter beyond a plot device.

Said team were the one saving grace for me as a non-fan, established in the first act and thankfully allowed a bit of "only this witty in the movies" charm before the action heats up and they start getting picked off one by one. The tonal shift is a bit jarring, as hazing rituals and silly arguments about show horses as wedding presents give way to an unending barrage of unsentimental carnage, but its just enough to humanize these guys before things get grim and we're put in a position to care about whether they live or die. At about the 40 minute mark we're faced with an interesting moral dilemma that sets up the final two thirds of the movie and we get a sense of who these guys are under pressure, but after that, it basically descends into non-stop shooting and running, again well done from an action standpoint, but more than a little tiring after a while unless you're really committed, which I personally wasn't.

As always, being a movie based on a true story, and taken from the personal account of the man who lived it, its hard to analyze Lone Survivor with an eye towards traditional narrative structure. Certain parallels emerge, for example an act of mercy that at first seems like a tactical error, but then ultimately comes back around karmically, but since everything is painted with the same chaotic brush, its hard to differentiate between the true story unfiltered and those moments that needed to be massaged to make the story work as a movie. For what its worth, the film never slips into the sort of self-aggrandizing hagiography of Captain Phillips, instead opting to show why these people should be considered heroes rather than just telling us they are for two hours. It never asks you to see the world the way they do or value what they value, but it assumes that their nobility is self evident in their actions, never spoon feeding you its patriotic message no matter how obvious it is throughout.

Apparently, some of the true bits they left out for narrative convenience are even more powerful and grueling then what they left in. For instance, while Mark Wahlberg's character is walking despite a gruesome injury towards the end of the film, the real guy he's based on temporarily lost the use of his legs and had to crawl several miles to get out of harm's way, only able to hide from his would-be Taliban captors after being blown into a cave by a rocket propelled grenade. Not only should that scene have been in the movie, it should have been the entire trailer and the image on the poster! The list of inaccuracies and inconsistencies seems relatively small for your average "true story," indicating a greater than typical fealty to the source material and respect on Berg's part for the real life people whose lives and deaths make this story so compelling. Its a love letter with its heart in the right place that doesn't force its oorah! spirit down your throat, which is more than I was expecting, and as much as you can hope for with this many guns and explosions.

Semper Fudge!

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