by Philip Price
In the midst of Hollywood's 2007 politically-charged, post 9/11 war on terror rally to get certain points of views into mainstream entertainment director Peter Berg produced a little seen gem called “The Kingdom,” that starred Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman and Chris Cooper. There were plenty other a strong supporting player here, but despite it all the film failed to connect. That could be blamed as much on the saturation of the market as it could the film’s own shortcomings. Prepping ourselves for this along with “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition” and “Lions for Lambs” there simply wasn't much of a chance for this well-made, but familiar feeling film dropped on us in the dog days of late September. I bring this up because despite “The Kingdom” not leaving much of an impression on audiences I actually wound up seeing the film a few times and the final scene in which Berg contrasted the feelings of hate and anger from the U.S. toward the Middle East and vice versa, while a simple statement, was also a strong and powerful one that immediately resonated with me as a viewer; it allowed for all the complexity of war and the purpose of the meanings behind words like honor and courage to be stripped down to not so much their definitions, but the intention behind them. It showed, in that brief moment, that we all have similar ideals and end games, but are naturally coming at them from different perspectives. It is fine to have different perspectives or opinions on things, that is what makes the world and the human race consistently interesting, but to allow those different points of view to culminate in a fight to the death or to use violence to re-enforce these points will bring both sides nothing but pain, eventually overshadowing any victory we might feel we've come away with. There is a difference between compromising, coming to an agreed upon solution and beating someone into submission, but somewhere along the lines of history we found war to be the most effective tool of persuasion and today, that tradition continues stronger than ever. I say all of this to say that while Berg's latest effort, “Lone Survivor,” is also a simple story he is able to say much more with the film and the implications of the events it documents that we come away with much more than an adrenaline rush of action or misplaced pride, but a real understanding for the value of life and that it is not worth throwing away for inconsequential details.
I realize there is a level of relevancy to what this operation was doing, naturally, they are protecting not only what they believe to be their home, but also the small villages not in line with the Taliban who have to fight against the terrorist group as much as we do. We are still there in many ways to not only feel satisfied in the revenge of 9/11 but because the U.S. always feels like the big brother who has to go over and stop the other kids from picking on his little brother. We feel the urge to stick our nose in things where it's unnecessary sometimes. I'm not saying it's a bad thing to want to help, to want to make things right, but how much right is being done when the outcome are events such as what we see unfold in “Lone Survivor”? Just the story itself, minus the pristine camera work, the fine performances and the countless stuntmen and sound engineers who make the gun fight in the middle of this film one of the most equally terrifying and breathtaking pieces of cinema I saw all of last year, is one that is incredibly horrifying and heartbreaking. We meet the four members of SEAL team 10 in the order of Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) a natural born leader who is prepping for his wedding upon his return. Our titular Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) who seems a man of simple pleasures and takes pride in his position among his peers. We also have Matt "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster) who is as precise as he is passionate and finally there is Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) a communications specialist that may be the smallest in stature, but certainly has a fire inside him that isn't easy to put out. Despite the fact audiences will either be familiar with the true story this is based on or by the fact the title itself gives the outcome of the mission away neither of these could hardly be considered a spoiler because the film itself isn't as much about the outcome as it is paying tribute to who these men were and giving us a brief glimpse into what they endured and sacrificed in order to make us all feel a little bit safer. Berg sets these guys up in the beginning with the key ingredient that surpasses everything else the military and its actions stand for and that is the bond, the brotherhood felt between these soldiers. Without it, we wouldn't buy into what each of them does for the other when they find themselves in the thick of things and it certainly wouldn't leave as aching an impact as it does when the credits come around.
While this is mostly conveyed through the strong work of Wahlberg and his younger cast mates it is also a distinct idea that Berg wanted to make clear was a theme from the very beginning. In fact, as the film opens we see footage of actual training that not only re-enforces the ugly mentality that is forced upon these impressionable minds that put a definitive line between what it means to be a man and what it means to be less than human is frighteningly damaging, but it also contains quips such as, "I like having buddies I can depend on and I'd like them to be able to depend on me." These short, but introspective glimpses into the mindset of not only NAVY Seals, but what I assume is the majority of those enlisted in the military is that it doesn't necessarily matter what their mission is or who they are assigned to kill, but more it is taking the orders from the boss and knowing you have the right people around you to carry that out successfully. While that could easily be taken as a broad generalization, it seems the intent of Berg's piece surrounding this failed mission. The director doesn't choose to focus on the details of the mission or the countless moving parts that play into how this could succeed or fail, but instead we take all the facts of what these four men are being dropped into the mountains to do at face value. There is a bad guy, Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd (Yousuf Azami), and he killed 20 Marines the week prior to "Operation Red Wings" thus it is time for him to die: understood. These four are the best at what they do, they are a close knit group and can make what needs to be done, happen: understood. All is well until a couple of goat herders from the village below come across their path and they are forced to make a decision that will undoubtedly change the outlook of the rest of their lives no matter what decision they make. It is a reassuring piece of conversation that lets the audience know there was humanity in the situation, that there was a sense of true right and wrong, but it also really puts one’s mind in the center of the conflict as you wonder what you might do were it you in that position. It is easy to say you'd do the same, that what they did was right and it is also easy to say you'd kill them and guarantee your survival, but in that moment (and the movie does a fine job of putting us in the center of the dilemma) we don't really know what we'd do, what we feel we'd be able to live with. That, in itself, is the essence of what Berg is trying to get at with the film. Besides telling this incredible true story of survival it shines that light on the psychology of those who voluntarily put themselves in situations most would run away from.
That this is so stripped down to the simple nuts and bolts of the plot and closely focuses solely on the companionship between the principle cast members and eventually on the drive Luttrell somehow found within himself to stay alive is what makes the film feel so quickly paced, so nail-bitingly intense that inevitably leaves us with a solemn if not rewarding experience. As the audience has been trained, we want to be happy for Marcus, happy that he survived and that even if all of them didn't make it, he did and will hopefully live a life that would have made his brothers in arms proud. That all feels too much like we're romanticizing what the real Luttrell has seen and fought through though. Wahlberg, in a strong and commanding performance overall, narrates a final line over the film that makes us feel somewhat complete in this sense, but simply put there are no words that will do justice to what it means to "move on" after an event such as this one. To its credit, the film doesn't even attempt to do anything such as this, but instead takes the treachery and the bravery included in the mission and relays it to the screen without a filter while implementing techniques in order to better emphasize the themes and ideas it wants to explore. The result includes some fine performances from both Kitsch and Foster who develop their respective characters to the point we feel like we've known them their whole lives while only being on screen for about an hour of the run time. Kitsch hasn't garnered a great screen reputation, but this will seemingly lend him well to future supporting roles as he has a commanding presence that is best utilized when he doesn't have to also carry the weight of the film. Foster has always been an interesting performer and to his credit here we get a fully layered character that meets a gruesome end that is unfit for the man he seemingly was. I bring this up because it is the only moment in the film I didn't feel justified the violence it bluntly shows by not looking away. Most of the action here is necessary to understand the brutality of war and as I said earlier concerning the thrilling gun fight in the middle of the film that almost feels like a movie within a movie, it makes for the opportunity to deliver both hard hitting action as well as display the durability and intelligence of our protagonists, but there are small moments where the camera should shy away and leave characters with more dignity that unabashed access yet Berg can't seem to resist in that moment.
In saying that it also brings up how the film will satisfy on multiple levels. Those going in expecting a non-stop action flick that they can watch with their bros and bask in the manliness of the military and America will be more than pleased, but for those looking for something a little deeper, a little more nuanced it is clear Berg has inclinations for satisfying those desires as well. It seems it was a tough line for him to draw as he seems intent to honor Luttrell's vision for the film and his interpretation and memories of that day while also making a statement about the bigger picture and what the events of that day also mean in the larger scope of violence and humanity and how much it actually solves. These ideas are played out once again by Berg in effective fashion near the end of the film when Luttrell is rescued by the inhabitants of a small Afghan village who protect Marcus in honor of a 2,000 year old code of honor. During his short stay here the tables are turned and he is forced to see what it is like to be on the receiving end of people speaking in a foreign language in front of you that consist of conversation likely having to do with your fate. It is an eye opening moment that Berg expertly builds to and allows to simmer on the audiences mind before jolting them back into the thick of action. “Lone Survivor” doesn't seem to be trying to promote how great it is to be in the military or how exhilarating it is to fight in war despite the amount of action the film includes, but what we come away with is not only having witnessed a harrowing tale, but understanding the very specific insinuations that the film is making and how much of a job the military is not, but rather a lifestyle choice that seems more enigmatic than alluring to most of us.