Lone Survivor directed by Peter Berg stars Mark Wahlberg in the lead role of real-life character Marcus Lutrell, to whom the title of the film alludes to. It also co-stars Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster and Eric Bana. The film opens with a montage bearing a heroic, awe-inspiring quality that showcases the training regime of Navy SEAL officers. The physicality of their acts, of them pushing their bodies to its limits, pulls you in.
Film-maker Berg eventually zooms in on a certain bunch of officers. We’re shown these guys as belonging to something of a brotherhood with minimal power dynamics. Peter Berg believes he should induct the viewer into this fraternity. In order to achieve this, he paints the gang in positive light. Berg then introduces a comic foil to contrast how much ‘cooler’ the principal characters are against how much of a dud this foil is. And In a moment of crisis, this dud seems to have both difficulty and delay in recognizing the gravity of the situation. He is, unlike the main characters of the film, a misfit. This is as far as Berg is willing to go with characterization. His is a convenient way to get us to root for the principal characters, without actually developing them. They’re quickly established as courageous, gritty individuals who also have a boyish charm that’s likely to appeal to most people. If only Berg had been subtler.
However, Berg rights these wrongs to some degree with his tense direction of scene sequences that involve the men anticipating enemy soldiers atop a mountain. The sound design (the silences that communicate an ominous build-up, the rustling of the leaves, the almost-subliminal breathing) and the editing (the quick visuals, the slow zoom-ins, the swift cuts) are top notch, working wonders together. If I complained above that I was kept at bay, here’s where I’ll admit I was buried neck-deep in a slow-brew tension. I felt like I was looking over my shoulder. But this act is the only extraordinary moment in the entire film. From here on, the film just gravitates toward the final act, which turns out to be disastrous on several levels.
There are comic moments cleverly slipped in between such tense moments. Like a dialogue involving the cost of a horse that is intentionally out-of-place with the tension built by the film. Taylor Kitsch’s character exclaims, “FUCK. 15,000 bucks!” He’s supposed to be looking over his shoulder and what happens to concern him now is money he’ll have to shell out if he makes it out of here alive. Is this meant to reveal a child-like innocence? Or is it manly confidence? Only Berg knows. Not only does something like this diffuse a tightly wound moment, it also attempts to sheepishly develop the character’s idiosyncrasies. Either way, it did score a chuckle out of me. So, I’ll give Berg some credit for that.
The characters aren’t fleshed out enough for me to be constantly and consistently involved in the film. I found my mind floating away by itself. That is, until a piece of dialogue was interjected into the action. And when I found myself interested again, out of mild curiosity, an unexpected explosion sucker-punched me. This technique worked repeatedly at just keeping the viewer in the loop. But, that alone is never enough and the trick soon loses its charm. If there was more at stake, these subversive attempts would’ve worked in the film’s favour. That isn't the case here, and the technique's redundancy is soon apparent.
Berg’s skilled directorial work makes this film viscerally immersive, but it’s his sloppy writing and half-baked characterization that keeps the film emotionally lukewarm. That he takes cinematic liberties for granted doesn’t help either. About midway into the film, Berg sticks to a zone where he’s most comfortable- showcasing events. The explosions come in succession, the gun-firing in bursts and the blood just keeps flowing. Berg is obviously most interested in the events, less in the characters involved and least in exploring their states of mind. That’s not necessarily a complaint, simply an observation. This is why I wish he hadn’t chosen to change course, which he does drastically, when the film seems to be nearing a modest end, and turns it on its head.
And it is here, the final act, where Peter Berg manages to wrong everything that he got right. I’m talking absolutely ridiculous dialogue exchanges between Marcus and enemy soldiers. Peter Berg has characterized enemy soldiers in a black-and-white fashion (If you’re pro-American, you’re good. If you’re anti-American, you’re bad. If you sacrifice your village for one American, you’re a shining example of nobility.) This is such a joke and so hard to take in. It’s disappointing watching Peter Berg make one misstep after the other until he finally lets this well-crafted film collapse. There are so many flaws, every one of them staring you right in the face and you almost lose the sense of gratitude you still feel for everything Berg delivered in the earlier half of the film. Even the altruistic motivations of enemy soldiers aren’t clear. Berg believes that we’d just evaluate characters on their acts, not on what drives them to carry out these acts. However, what’s most embarrassing to watch is Marcus’s verbal aggression that aims to do nothing other than showcase his so-called grit, an attribute that takes the form of teenage bravado here.
*SPOILERS* There were some serious questions swimming in my head pertaining to Marcus’s state of mind in various instances. Marcus makes an emotional decision in the most crucial moment of the film. He lets a bunch of villagers go. They tell on the soldiers. This decision eventually catches up with him and his buddies. Does Marcus ever feel guilt for what he did? Does he feel a sense of despair? Does he second-guess his decision? Does he feel a sense of self-loathing? What is he thinking trusting once again a man from enemy territory? What’s running through his mind when he’s been dragged into the village by a civilian? Does he suspect anything? Is there no doubt in his head? No fear of torture? No moral dilemma? These are questions that are very likely to plague a man’s mind in such dire circumstances. But Berg lets all the bigger themes slide.
*MORE SPOILERS* Marcus effortlessly brings about internal conflict in the village and soon enough, half the village is blown to smithereens with its women being held at gun point. Nevertheless, we are shown that they’d somehow managed to provide Marcus with a spare change of clothes, in this time of crisis. And a little boy who seems “special” decides that this is the best time for him to bond with an American soldier who can’t speak his language. Such shameless tugs at the viewer's heartstrings left me cringing in my seat.
It’s easy to dismiss all of these problems by saying “It’s based on a true story.” Sure, it’s a real account, but hardly a realistic one. I don’t mean to completely dismiss Berg’s film-making capabilities here and do believe he’s a fine, gifted craftsman, but he just needs to hire a better writer. I didn’t warm well to his approach towards the material either- his preference for capturing events over the characters and exploring their minds. But what puzzled me most about Lone Survivor is how such a talented bunch of actors seem so content with playing themselves.