By Preston Wilder
I couldn’t hate Lone Survivor. Like The Sound of Music, it is what it is (unlike The Sound of Music, it’s often graphically violent). Long before the s-l-o-w final credits, a photo spread of our four protagonists – four Navy SEALs on a mission in Afghanistan – unfolding to the strains of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, it’s clear that the film is designed as a tribute to Our Brave Men and Women (though no women actually appear) serving in that godforsaken land. When a movie’s so transparent about its intentions, complaining about them almost seems like bad form.
There’s another reason why the gung-ho vibe isn’t totally offensive. Lone Survivor recalls Black Hawk Down (2001), another film about a US military operation gone wrong (in Somalia, in that case) and another film where much of the running-time was devoted to lengthy, noisy, rather unimaginative battle scenes. Both films also seem to carry the same implicit message, viz. that US troops are fighting savages and can only win by becoming more savage. Black Hawk Down had Sam Shepard as a stickler for the ‘rules of engagement’, and implied that officers like Shepard were part of the problem, while Survivor has a scene where the soldiers debate what to do with a bunch of Afghan goatherds (i.e. civilians): Axe (Ben Foster) says they have to kill them or they’ll bring the Taliban down on them – and Axe is outvoted but later proved right, with tragic results. A more hard-nosed approach might’ve saved the mission, says the movie.
Yes; but there’s also a difference. Black Hawk Down seemed irresponsible in 2001, when the West was going to war in the wake of 9/11; even five years later, the bloodthirsty militarism of 300 struck some people (including me) as inappropriate. This, however, is very much the endgame. All US combat troops are due to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014, the only remaining question being whether Western puppet Karzai will end up suffering the same grisly fate as Soviet puppet Najibullah back in the day. In this context, Lone Survivor doesn’t feel like it’s cheerleading for war. It feels like an elegy – the tale of a mission that fell apart, just like the whole damn war fell apart.
Or, to be more specific: a mission that fell apart through no fault of our own. This is not like Vietnam (as seen in Platoon), with the soldiers at each other’s throats. Even at their lowest point, when they’re arguing over whether to kill civilians, there’s mutual respect and rational thinking: this is a subject, it’s implied, about which reasonable people can disagree (interestingly, the opposing view – put by Marcus, played by Mark Wahlberg – is partly that CNN will cause a scandal if they kill the goatherds, as if blaming the liberal media for cramping the soldiers’ style). Lone Survivor joins a long line of Hollywood war films – The Hurt Locker is a semi-exception – that emphasise the hellish, inhospitable terrain of Iraq and Afghanistan, and downplay any personal tensions between the troops.
I suppose it’s inevitable, given that the film is based on a memoir by one of the soldiers – and of course the title makes clear that there were casualties, and you don’t speak ill of the dead. These guys are brothers, looking out for each other (the film opens almost tenderly, with one soldier going from bunk to bunk waking up his comrades). These guys are professionals. “Gotta pay the bills,” they say; “Ready to punch that time card,” they announce wryly before going into battle. They like to joke around. They have wives and sweethearts back home, and think about getting them wedding presents. Their Taliban target, on the other hand, isn’t just a “bad guy”, he’s a physical freak with no earlobes; his codeword is actually “Rick James”, as in the song ‘Super Freak’.
That’s what Lone Survivor comes down to, idealised heroes on the one hand, dehumanised freaks on the other. In between, admittedly, are the Afghan locals – and the film makes a big deal of paying tribute to their resilience and sense of honour (Wahlberg doesn’t actually adopt an orphan, like John Wayne in The Green Berets, but he comes close), which I guess is another sign of the times: after all, Afghans will be responsible for their own security in a few months’ time. Years from now, this simplistic but oddly inoffensive film may be seen as a kind of Time-capsule, a film from the tail-end of a turbulent decade – a reflection of a dazed, wounded nation collectively saying ‘Well, we tried’ and remembering those who died in the struggle. “It’s feeling like a cursed op,” notes a SEAL at one point – but his buddy shakes his head reassuringly: “It’s just Afghanistan, that’s all”. Forget it, Jake, it’s Afghanistan.
DIRECTED BY Peter Berg
STARRING Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch
US 2013 121 mins