Hollywood has quite a history of its ‘based on a true story’ war films focusing on the heroic exploits of its brave, heroic and heroically brave soldiers, ranging from Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down to Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh’s Act of Valor, which Mark Kermode memorably summed up as ‘Tropic Thunder played straight’, many of which are co-produced by the Pentagon in an attempt to get their recruitment adverts to the widest possible audience. Peter Berg is the latest director to jump into this particular genre with Lone Survivor, based on the book by Patrick Robinson about a botched Navy SEAL operation in Afghanistan, which left on a single man (dare we say a lone survivor) alive.
To say that this film is a true story is being extremely generous. While the basic story of four soldiers go after an Afghan warlord, are spotted by the Taliban and get shot a lot before the last one is taken in by some friendly locals is relatively accurate, both the book and the movie embellish it a lot for their own purposes. The Taliban are the main targets of this. Marcus Luttrell, the real-life lone survivor gave an estimate of the Taliban forces at around twenty men, although other estimates have ranged from ten to forty. The book tells us that the SEALS faced off against two hundred of the buggers, which can’t help but remind me of Tom Cruise in the opening of The Last Samurai (‘So there I was, surrounded by a hundred indian braves’) and which is done solely in an attempt to make a more rousingly patriotic underdog story (which like the Call of Duty games often strikes me as disingenuous when the best-equipped military force in the world is crowbarred into the underdog position).
As far as the film itself goes, the biggest problem is that Peter Berg cannot decide what he wants his movie to be. On one hand he’s trying to make a gritty war is hell and pain film but on the other he wants it to be an jingoistic flag-waving exercise and the result is pretty much Call of Duty meets The Passion of the Christ. The characters themselves are not real people. They bear the names of the men involved in the real-life mission, but they’re not characterised beyond Generic Soldier Hero Guy #’s 1, 2, 3 and 4. The team leader’s only character is ‘about to be married’ which is just below ‘one day from retirement’ in this sort of film, and that’s the most development anyone here gets. This really hurt the centrepiece of the movie as the utter lack of any knowledge of who these people are or any emotional connection to them combined with the insane amount of punishment they take just became funny for me, almost like Wile E Coyote goes to Afghanistan. The cheesy action movie lines the actors are given get a bit silly sometimes, one of them pauses before headshotting bad guys twice to say first ‘You can die for your country, I’m gonna live for mine’ and then ‘I am the reaper’, which got a chuckle out of me.
The films treatment of the villain, for want of a better word, is very lacking as well. The Taliban commander is introduced suddenly in the opening SEAL briefing, which cuts between the SEALS planning the mission and cracking jokes and their target cutting off a man’s head. Besides the abrupt tonal shifts here (caused because this was originally a separate sequence), this is the only development this guy gets. This scene is also confusing later, as the man is being killed for helping the Americans and the other villagers don’t fight back, but when defending Mark Walberg later the villagers are willing to take on the whole Taliban army. The film sets this guy up as nothing more than evil beheading man, and the occasional shots later during the main firefight of him glaring at the Americans seemed like they were building up to something, but he has absolutely no role in the film besides being the man the SEALS are looking for and the position of enemy authority figure chasing the heroes is filled by his henchman, who really looks like Oscar Isaac. In reality the SEALS never actually saw their target during the operation, so his presence at all is only there to impress upon the audience that the SEALS are the heroes.
The film actually gets interesting about two thirds of the way in when the last man left is taken in by locals who protect him against the Taliban. This sequence actually works and while watching the climactic action scene of the villagers fighting the invading Taliban forces who are after Mark Walberg (which was made up entirely for the film as the real Taliban did not attack as it would risk losing support in nearby villages, which beheading their occupants would probably do as well) I suddenly realised something. The tagline for this movie is ‘based on true acts of courage’, which would make my skin crawl regardless of the film it was placed in front of, but it is accurate although not in the way Peter Berg thinks. The director thinks that this is primarily a story about the courage and heroism of the SEALS, which it isn’t, as they spend most of their time just being shot repeatedly. The story of courage and self-sacrifice here is that of the villager who takes Walberg in, who is fighting a much better equipped Taliban force for the sake of a man who he doesn’t know, but is duty-bound to protect due to their traditions of hospitality (also never invite Mark Walberg round to your house, he’ll start threatening you with a grenade). If this movie were just about this guy, who I think is only named in the closing four-minute montage of every soldier who died in the operation, I would probably have really liked it.
From a technical perspective this film is fairly good, with Berg’s direction pulling off the forty-five minute action centrepiece well-enough to the point where parts of it were actually quite fun (although I don’t think that’s what he was going for). The death of one of the SEALS at the base of a tree was genuinely effective despite the lack of characterisation and in a better movie would have been really difficult to watch. He does a fair job of making New Mexico look like the tribal regions of Afghanistan as well, and points to the cinematographer for creating a overall good-looking movie. The acting’s decent, especially given that the cast have little to work with and Walberg gives a good turn as the protagonist (although he still very much seems like Mark Walberg). In the end though it’s really just a mediocre war film with pretensions to being something more and I can’t recommend it unless like Peter Berg your wet dreams involve the US military. If you want a good real-life middle-eastern war story check out HBO’s Generation Kill, or if you have a decent knowledge of military tactics and bomb disposal and want a good laugh check out The Hurt Locker, but don’t spend your money on this one.