' Cinema Romantico: Lone Survivor

Monday, November 03, 2014

Lone Survivor

The pivotal moment in writer/director Peter Berg's silver screen creation of the true-to-life Navy SEALs operation in June 2005 gone wrong, chronicled in the book by the "Lone Survivor" of the title, Marcus Luttrell, finds the film's Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and his three camouflaged cohorts in the hills overlooking an Afghan village. Down below is a valued target in the form of a Taliban member closely affiliated with Osama bin Laden. The SEALs retreat into the trees to await orders, only to find their position accidentally compromised by three shepherds. Springing into action, the armed quartet takes the shepherds prisoner and debates its ensuing strategy.


Luttrell wants to cut the shepherds loose - after all, their rules of engagement clearly state they are not to kill civilians - and move to higher ground in hopes of calling back to base for a rescue. Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Axelson (Ben Foster) believe the shepherds to be Taliban soldiers, not civilians, and that to simply cut them loose would be giving themselves up. They want to execute the shepherds or, at the very least, bind them, potentially leaving them for dead. This is an ethical quandary, to be sure, but it cuts even deeper, pitting ethics squarely against survival, eliminating the complicated thought process of any Monday Morning Quarterbacks. This is not to suggest the public should stifle its view on the rules of war, but that in the moment, when lives are on the line, the value of “targets” and “morals” turns terribly muddy. It reminds me of the grand line spoken by Eric Bana (who is featured in “Lone Survivor” in a supporting part) in "Black Hawk Down": "Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit goes right out the window." That, I risk saying, is the sensation all backline war mongerers and protestors will never understand.

And it's the sensation that, at times, Berg seems most prone to exploring, when the notion of what a mission 'means' slips away and all that’s left - quoting "Black Hawk Down" again (can you tell I really like that one?) - is the man next to you. Time spent next to those men can make you tight-knit, as so many other war films have taught us, and "Lone Survivor" is no different. Still, there is a clear chain of command, and even when you and your men wish to debate ethics in the heat of battle, that debate is mostly for your own peace of mind. Because when the man in charge - in this case, Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) - says you’re cutting the shepherds loose and climbing the peak to establish radio contact, all you can do is reply "Yes, sir."

Well, it probably goes without saying that one of the shepherds is aligned with the Taliban and makes haste to tell his compatriots of the enemy up in them thar hills. An elongated shootout ensues, constantly changing terrain and suitably capturing the dreadful no-way-out proposition for our SEALs. Their fight for survival is juxtaposed with operations back at the American base and their scattered efforts to stage a rescue operation.

Whether this film is pro or anti war is more or less revealed straight away, Berg opening with real life footage that essentially doubles as a recruiting ad, painting military life as a brotherhood of machismo. I am not saying this is wrong, nor right, merely that the idea, for good or bad or both, is evoked, and it is an idea to which I imagine a great many youthful males of our society are drawn. And the camarederie of "Lone Survivor's" establishing scenes, as well as the all-for-one and one-for-all vibe in the midst of heavy combat, elicit the same notion. I watch "Without Limits" to naively bask in the impression of being an Olympic runner and I imagine a military enthusiast might watch "Lone Survivor" to bask in the impression of being in battle. 

Ultimately the film makes it case for war as a remedy of humanity when Luttrell is found and taken in by a village of Afghanees who bravely stare down the Taliban, and are even willing to draw guns and fire back. We fight, "Lone Survivor" says, so that they may be free. But it would seem that these villagers and their enemies have been at odds a long time before American Black Hawks dotted the sky. It is, in other words, something we cannot hope to truly understand, the forever simmering conflict within Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East, no matter how often we militarily attempt to insert ourselves. And while "Lone Survivor", like "Black Hawk Down", puts us on the ground, in the midst of conflict, to tromp its soldiers' boots, it cannot truly hope to understand those overseas who they are made to fight and defend.

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

I fully and totally and absolutely love what you said in your final paragraph. And I also want to applaud you for having the stones to write this review. It can be hard to take a stance against such politically charged films. You come off as a traitor if you don't like Lone Survivor, or a soulless prick if you bash 50/50, or a racist if you write a dissenting review of Dear White People. But a good movie is a good movie, regardless of what it's about, you know?