(Rohan Morbey, who blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK, checks in with his hot-and-cold thoughts on real-life war story Lone Survivor, from director Peter Berg. Rohan is good people, and we're always happy to include his posts here, and recommend that you follow Rohan on Twitter.)
If ever a film needed the ‘based on a true story’ title card, then Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor is that film. Some of the things the Navy SEALs go through in this film would be impossible for us to comprehend, but the fact that it’s based on reality gives some of the sequences even more of a punch. It also features the best depiction of combat I’ve seen since Black Hawk Down. There’s around 50 minutes in Lone Survivor which are outstanding, and I’d argue this section is among the best pure entertainment I saw in 2013. We have four US Navy SEALs behind enemy lines on a mission to capture or kill a leading Taliban member; a group of shepherds arrive and everything changes. The questions the film asks on the rights and wrongs in warfare only add to a very tense scene. And when a relentless gun battle breaks out where the four SEALs are outnumbered several times over, the film goes to the next level.
As simple as that sounds, what unfolds is really quite sensational and expertly staged. The sound effects editing of breaking bones, bullet hits, falling rocks, and gunfire is at the highest level of proficiency and adds the dimension the scene needs to make it all believable. As the film takes the time to tell us, this was a real mission and a real battle, and these were real men who fought for their country, asking no questions of the cause. We already know that "war is hell", but the movie reminds us in a startling way.
For all the amazing work he puts into the middle section of the film, Berg sometimes loses touch with what he is trying to show us. The film opens with a recruitment video for the Navy SEALs to give the audience an idea of what it takes to become an elite soldier; in a clumsy way Berg is showing us his unapologetic admiration for these men. Strange then, that over the next twenty minutes the film fails to rise above broad strokes, with dialogue so formulaic one could be forgiven in thinking the film will be just another action movie with one dimensional characters. In a film which begins so passionately about the services soldiers give their country, surely these men deserve a better introduction.
Another major weakness Berg shows as a director is his inability to fully take his film out of ‘action movie mode’. When one soldier, who separates himself from the others in a last ditch attempt to make radio contact with their base, is killed, Berg portrays his death with all the nuance of a video game; slow motion, bullets ripping through the body, and a nice glossy look to it all. It took me out of the moment completely and was, frankly, an insult to both audience and SEAL. Are these men being honored and their services remembered, or are they there for audience gratification? Moreover, the inclusion of the real SEALs’ photos accompanied by a terrible cover of David Bowie’s Heroes feels like it is in the wrong film and shows, to me, Berg is not quite capable of making us truly feel for the men in his film without falling back on such obvious tactics.
Despite the shortcomings of the director (whose last two films, let’s not forget, were the awful Battleship and Hancock), it would unfair to say Lone Survivor doesn’t deliver; when it does it does it extremely well. It’s so good at times that I could even tolerate Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch. High praise, indeed.