There is a moment, during the post-film discussion, when Lone Survivor director Peter Berg says—with some exasperation—that “it’s notoriously difficult to make a war movie about the Middle East.”
It’s not hard to understand why. As a genre, “war movies” focus on the heroism of soldiers and their exploits. For World War II, the war most filmed by American directors, this is an easy lift. After all, to most eyes, the Second World War is morally unambiguous, which allows audiences to fully root for the United States and its allies. They're fighting Nazis, who are, for most people, the secular equivalent of demons.
The same wasn’t true of the war in Vietnam, nor is it true of our wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. These are complicated wars, where our adversaries are a mix of militants, terrorists, foreign nationals, and ordinary people radicalized by the inevitable violence and suffering of war. And in the same way we don’t have triumphant movies about our brutal, painful war in Vietnam, we haven’t had films that celebrate our involvement in the Middle East, since—for a war weary country—there’s nothing to celebrate. Instead, we have movies that delve into the mind and psyche of our soldiers, from Jarhead, which takes place during the first Gulf War, to The Hurt Locker, which uses the second as its setting.
Lone Survivor tries to use the war in Afghanistan as the setting for a modern update to the classic war film. Gritty and violent—Berg doesn’t flinch from showing what bullets do to the human body—but ultimately something that places American soldiers in the best possible light. Based on real events and the book Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, the film centers on Marcus Luttrell, played by Mark Wahlberg, the only SEAL to survive a failed mission to kill or capture a Taliban leader in the summer of 2005.
With long shots of the New Mexico landscape where it was filmed, Berg establishes Afghanistan as a lonely place. Outside of combat, the soldiers of SEAL Team 10 are either sleeping, exercising, or making decisions about routine minutia with loved ones: which wedding gift to buy, which paint to use for a new room in the house.
In short order, the SEALs—played by Taylor Kitsch (of Friday Night Lights), Eric Bana, and others—are assembled for a mission. They are to kill or capture a Taliban leader who is responsible for deadly attacks against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. The operation goes according to plan, until the team encounters a small group of herders. A furious and frank debate over what to do with them follows, and the team agrees to let them go. This, in turn, draws attention to their position, and sparks a terrible firefight between the SEALs and nearby Taliban forces. As suggested by the title, there’s only one survivor—Lutrell—and he manages to escape capture, aided by Pashtun villagers who find him and nourish him back to health. The rest of the film deals with the retaliation these villagers face from the Taliban, and Lutrell’s efforts to make his way back to American military soil.
The emotional core of this story, as told in the book, and as articulated by the real-life Lutrell during the post-screening discussion, is the relationship between him and the villager who saved his life, and later, suffered retribution as a result. That action has created a lifelong bond between the two, which the real life Lutrell emphasized throughout the conversation.
Berg nods to this in the film, but doesn’t dwell on it. Instead, the bulk of the running time is devoted to the firefight, and Berg, as a director, is preoccupied with the violence of the fighting. Blood splatters, heads explode, and the agony of the SEAL protagonists as they’re injured and eventually killed is drawn out. Dark-skinned Taliban fighters are unceremoniously killed by the dozens, while our white American soldiers are given indulgent deaths; one star, in particular, experiences a long, slow-motion death scene that feels gratuitous.
All of these elements are drawn from classic war films, but it’s still not clear that they work for a conflict like the one in Afghanistan. For myself, at least, it’s hard to balance the heroism of the soldiers with the war they’re fighting. Indeed, when one of the shepherds bolts down the mountain to warn the Taliban of American soldiers, it’s hard to blame him; yes, the SEALs spared his life, but they humiliated and came close to killing him. As a character, his anger was justified.
It’s all of this that makes me wonder if the firefight was the wrong place of emphasis for the film. It’s not as thrilling as a gun battle, but the relationship between Lutrell and his savior is emotionally satisfying in a way that fighting isn’t, and a deeper exploration could have made for a more interesting, introspective movie. Lone Survivor isn’t bad, but when you consider what it could have been—if Berg had been a little less concerned with making a war film—it is a bit disappointing.