Transforming a disaster into an epic

Transforming a disaster into an epic

Lone Survivor 

English (A)**
Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch

It is logical to assume that an actor who can also direct has the best possible perspectives of both trades. If Clint Eastwood is the epitome of this reasoning, actor-turned-director Peter Berg is its antithesis.

Despite his obvious intelligence, Berg has been responsible for a long list of schlock, from three-minute videos for bad music to the vaguely amusing Hancock (2008), to the 2012 clunker, Battleship — an insipid picture based on the old naval board game, but with extraterrestrial opponents (what were they thinking?).  Berg’s films call for a high degree of suspended disbelief, which makes it all the more unusual to see him involved in a true-to-life film such as Lone Survivor.

Loosely based on the memoires of US Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell (the US Navy actually farmed out the task of writing the book to British novelist Patrick Robinson), Lone Survivor details a harrowing firefight between a four-man team of Navy Seals — Lieutenant Mike Murphy (Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Hirsch), “Axe” Axelson (Foster) and Luttrell (Wahlberg) — and a force of Taliban insurgents during “Operation Red Wing,” a 2005 US military mission aimed at destabilizing Taliban militias in the Pech valley ahead of the Afghan parliamentary elections that September. 

At the heart of the film is a moral crisis between rules and the realities of warfare, when three goatherds stumble upon the Seals’ camouflaged position.  They are quickly subdued, and the Seals debate killing them to maintain secrecy. In the book, Luttrell claimed that he favoured releasing the Afghans but insinuates that the decision not to kill resulted in the unit’s destruction. This quandary leaves the film (as it did the book) at the divisive intersection of American politics. 

Conservative audiences openly applaud the story’s ham-fisted suggestion that rules of warfare cannot be applied to third-world savages. Yet, the film also unwittingly offers the sense that the US military is unprepared for the totality of war. The men are too fat, showered, weaned on comfort (their barracks resemble two-star hotels), and where frontline command resembles a “boy’s own” club. 

Operational waypoints are named after beer brands and half of the men’s psyches remain permanently tuned to home, to wives and girlfriends, remodeling the kitchen, paying off credit cards and planning the next holiday. Not a single frame of this cliché-ridden film feels genuine, barring those in last half hour when Luttrell is saved and protected by those same barbarous and cruel Afghans. Where previously the film flounders under pedestrian acting by Kitsch, Hirsch and Foster (who are hardly known for their depth) Mark Wahlberg now comes into his own, brilliantly playing the angst-ridden and battered Luttrell who has nothing left to lose.

 His performance and that of Ali Suliman as the humane Afghan villager Gulab, salvage the picture, but not by much. Films like Lone Survivor ultimately embody the continued desire of the United States to make sense of 9/11 and to exemplify America’s noble cause of retribution in the Middle East. Yet, films like this also exist to fashion heroes — even when none can possibly exist.

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