The sign of a good action movie is when you are involved in the action happening on screen. Lone Survivor has one impressive extended action set-piece standing at the center of the film that makes it worth watching.
The sign of a good war movie is when it comments on war. Anti-war or not, it must give us something to take back from it. Lone Survivor does none of this and is an average war movie at best.
Lone Survivor is based on Marcus Luttrell’s account of a 2005 mission in Afghanistan, which follows four US Navy SEALs on the hunt for a Taliban leader. The title is itself a big spoiler, in case you’re wondering how it pans out in the end. There is an action set-piece right in the center of the film. It goes on for about an hour. It is gripping and visceral. We are a part of the action, always knowing what’s going on. We see their faces badgered and bruised. We hear gunshots, explosions and bones breaking.
Many are saying this film contains the best battles sequence since Saving Private Ryan (1998). No way. Neither is it anywhere near the scale nor does it match its technical mastery. Moreover, in the existence of Black Hawk Down (2001) and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), this would be a misplaced statement to make.
Filmmakers like Kubrick, Malick or Coppola never settled for shooting well-staged action scenes. They told war-themed stories and said something about it. Peter Berg is more interested in its commercial aspect. At a few places, it looked like watching a child playing with his G.I. Joes. Peter Berg’s previous film was based on a game called Battleship (2012) and it’s no surprise why. There is no doubt about the exhilarating depiction of battle but I can’t shake off the bitter after-taste of any filmmaker wanting their audience to be entertained by a story as grueling as this one. War porn and perverse heroism is not my thing.
Another downside to this film that really sticks out like a sore thumb is that it isn’t filmed in Afghanistan but in New Mexico, USA and it shows. It strips the authenticity off the film and reeks of Hollywoodization.
The films that came to my mind while watch this film were The Hurt Locker (2009) and the other big manhunt movie, Zero Dark Thirty (2012). While I am not a fan of films about Americans going into a foreign country and meddling in other people’s business (for good or bad), I increasingly admire Kathryn Bigelow’s approach to stories that could have been commercialized when I see a film like Lone Survivor.
The cast is fantastic. Mark Wahlberg shines amongst a band of good actors like Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana and Ben Foster. One of the most striking moments in the film is when we are given an impression that the film will end with a deus ex machina (America being the deus). It does not end and in fact, we have half an hour of a better film.
The final act is what saved the film for me. At the beginning, the navy SEALs encounter an Afghani shepherd and a boy. They have to make a decision to either let them go or kill them. The former might compromise their mission. This comes back full circle as the Afghans are given a choice at the end. I won’t go into the plot details but as long as we have people like Gulab, there will be movies worth making. As long as there are men who look beyond war profiteering and revenge, will there be any humanity worth championing. There are many reasons to think war is essential but it is a lot more than just winning or losing, kill or be killed. While the sappy ending may feel contrived and incredibly jingoistic, it was the only time I felt the movie was going to be about something more than what it was.
You can go and watch this film if you think war films need to be only action movies. If you want to watch competently filmed war scenes, you will get your money’s worth. For me, war isn’t an opportunity for an action film. While, I was involved in the goings-on and found some hope in the ending, I feel a better film could have been made out of this important and compelling story.