The tagline for “Lone Survivor,” the violently unnerving depiction of a 2005 Navy SEAL mission gone wrong in Afghanistan, gets at the essence of its flaws: “Based on true acts of courage” conveys the same brand of blind self-empowerment behind the militant spirit behind the incursions at hand. As Noam Chomsky famously wrote with regard to the pervasive “Support Our Troops” campaign, it’s “a slogan that nobody is going to be against and I suppose everybody will be for.”
In other words, it’s a rather pathetic marketing coup that lays bear the desperation of promoting a grisly project not strong enough to speak on its own terms. (Imagine the posters for “12 Years a Slave” carrying the same phrase.) “Lone Survivor” is a grotesque action movie at times impressively directed by Peter Berg that combines the brute masculinity with the ugliness of the battlefield and viscerally unsettling shock value. But it’s less a depiction of courage than a brutish magnification of anger and pain, both of which it conveys a lot better than the high ground that it reaches for.
But, boy, does it reach. The opening training montage, which sets the stage for the ensuing tense tale of a botched assassination mission in the Afghan countryside, drags on and on throughout a prolonged credits sequence featuring documentary footage that may as well serve as a prolonged recruitment video. It’s impressive to watch the Seals undergo extensive physical endurance tests just to prove how much they’ve been toughened up for the missions at hand, but it’s also a rather empty introduction for anyone who doesn’t automatically relate to the process at hand that basically says: These are guys tough. Is there nothing that can break them?
Those boundaries are capably tested when a small group of soldiers, including Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster), wind up in a prolonged firefight as their operation turns sour and survival prospects grow increasingly dim. “Winning here is a conscious decision,” says their gruff commander (Eric Bana) ahead of the mission. Hurtling down a rocky mountainside while breaking bones and exchanging constant fire, the men are battered into a bloody pulp as the body count rises — it’s no spoiler to say that only one among them manages to escape the chaos with his life.
The bulk of the movie takes place under these drab proceedings, and Berg successfully ramps up the intensity with abrasive sound design and a rapid montage that constantly shifts between closeups of the frantic men and the speedy Taliban members lurking among the trees nearby. Like Berg’s 2007’s soldier drama “The Kingdom,” the battle manages to convey a physically extreme process while at the same time feeling resoundingly empty. At least in Berg’s “Battleship,” the cartoonish belligerence operated under the guise of Hollywood escapism. No such luck in “Lone Survivor,” which tries to use its gory visuals in service of blurry ideas about the nature of conflict.
In “Saving Private Ryan,” the prolonged opening battle sequence managed to the convey the hellish nature of war precisely because it felt so impersonal. But “Lone Survivor” plays up a lightweight message about good and evil once Wahlberg’s character happens upon neutral Afghani villagers who offer him aid at a critical moment in the third act. It’s a rather simplistic equation — they fought hard for a reason, you see — that uses its non-fiction foundation like an excuse note. By the time it arrives at a coda filled with images of real life fallen soldiers set to a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” the movie has unapologetically transformed into a commercial memorial both lamenting the stakes of military conflict and saluting it. Without delving much into the paradoxes of modern warfare, “Lone Survivor” embodies them.
Criticwire Grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening December 27 in limited release, “Lone Survivor” will hit theaters nationwide on January 10. The crowded year-end release calendar means it won’t generate much box office heat at that time, but it could benefit from beginning of the year exposure as most awards season movies will have been out for some time by then. Still, it has slim prospects of a long-term performance.