12 January 2014


Bluntly, I don't want to review Lone Survivor. I watched it on a screener DVD back before Christmas, and at that time concluded that my intense philosophical disagreements weren't going to be at all productive as the spine of a review - anyone who agrees with me would just end up depressed by what I'd say and anyone who disagrees would be angry - but that the movie itself was such a hash of flat characters and clumsy storytelling that I had nothing interesting to say about its technique. But it's heading to #1 at the American box office, and I made my stupid pledge years ago, so I'll at least throw a few thoughts out there without going to the work of a full-on analysis of the thing.

If Berg and producer-star Mark Wahlberg were at all sincere in their widely-expressed intention that this should be a dignifying tribute to the Navy SEALS who died during a failed operation to kill a Taliban leader in 1995, leaving just a lone survivor in the form of Marcus Luttrell, played by Wahlberg (no spoilers here: what the title doesn't give away, the first ten minutes of the film do in a flash-forward), surely they could have done a much better job of it than this. The four SEALS sent on that fatal mission have barely a dime's worth of differentiating characterisation, and it's literally only because the actors playing them are all familiar to me that I was able to tell them apart at all. Berg's screen adaptation of Luttrell's memoirs aims for nobility, but it ends up landing squarely in clichés from movies about soldiers stretching back 70 years or more, and the heroes he's trying to memorialise are presented as stock figures at best, saddled with wheezingly trite dialogue that makes them sound like reductive cartoons.

The story surrounding them breaks apart into four pieces of irregular size, opening with an all but explicit advertisement for the Navy that transitions into the best part of the film by far, a nuts-and-bolts look at what the mission consisted of on a practical and mechanical level, following the SEALS - Wahlberg as Luttrell, Taylor Kitsch as Michael Murphy, Emile Hirsch as Danny Dietz, and Ben Foster as Matt Axelson - as they're going about the business of soldiering, eventually slamming into a moral crisis that suffers from being the most conspicuously overwritten part of the script. Then we jump into a loud, hugely brutal combat sequence that is at once the most finely-made part of the film (the sound design alone is sort of miraculous), and also the most dubious, with Berg and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler lingering on the suffering of the four men with a visceral energy that emphasises the "died" part of "died for their country" with rather more slasher film glee than I could imagine being comfortable with. And then there's Luttrell's escape, a sequence that could be turned into a rich and involving movie all on its own, if Berg and company weren't too busy making this a fevered combat video game in the guise of a tribute film.

It's all very shallow, very glossy, very bloody, and very unpersuasive as serious drama; it's violence porn, really, and not even especially concerned about whether it's fetishising the Good Guys or the Bad Guys. And that comes right back to the characters, who simply aren't given enough life to make it possible to care for them once the shooting starts: the actors all do their best to be interesting and have personalities (Kitsch, I am surprised to say, doing far and away the best job of it, for my tastes), but they're still pretty rigid and brittle anyway. On the level of being a potent gutpunch of an experience, I guess this works, but it strikes me as being a trivialising, sensationalist way of paying tribute to anything, and far too unreflective to say anything largely interesting or worthwhile.

But I am a pacifist humanist, and Berg no doubt does not give a shit what I have to say.



Rick said...

I saw it w/my brother and we both enjoyed it. I thought it was well-made and despite your notice I didn't see it as either a video-game style film like Act of Valor or violence porn (I don't get jollies by seeing people killed).

However, I have never served, and think the view of someone who has would be interesting.

Brian said...

This is one of those films where I see the commercial and think "well, that may be terrible, or it may be great, but it's clearly, clearly, CLEARLY not aimed at me in any way, shape, or form."

Second best January open ever? Good for them. I guess.

Travis Earl said...

This is pretty much how I feel about movies like Captain Phillips and Zero Dark Thirty. Especially being a Canadian all I get from films of this ilk is "our military is pretty awesome." I'd get behind a Stallone style outrageous action film much sooner than I would a movie purporting to be a realistic portrayal of real life military operations, which, let's face, no matter what would be a glamorized version of the harsh reality.

Not Fenimore said...

@Travis Earl: yeah, pretty much. I always - love? hate? get a weird feeling about? - American movies' attitude to Our Boys, where there's often an implicit assumption you're supposed to empathize with them not because they're on a morally just cause, or even just as individuals in a dangerous and unpleasant situation, but because they are Our Boys.

That and the general lack of self-reflection in all the "isn't it awesome how we have the biggest guns?", although that's much worse in video games.

Devan said...

@Travis Earl:

It still immensely frustrates me that the consensus seems to be that Zero Dark Thirty is some sort of pro-post-9/11-American-foreign-policy tract, because it simply isn't true and the reading of it as such bewilders me. Did people collectively miss the final scene, where the film's themes about the emptiness of the war on terror and America's adrift morality move from the subtext to the text?

I just find it sad and distressing that one of the few films to really confront American amorality in the post-9/11 era without preaching about it has been tarred and feathered.

Brigdh said...

Having only seen the trailer for this film, I was already so angered and saddened by its mere premise (also by the fact that the trailer I saw spent far more time on talking head footage of the director and memoirist telling us how important this story is rather than actual footage of the movie), that I would have been interested in your "intense philosophical disagreements". But, yeah, as you say, it would probably be pretty depressing.

Travis Earl said...

I understood the thematic meaning of the final scene but it ultimately rang hollow for me because of the action scene preceding it. The raid on the compound is four star technical filmmaking made by one of the most talented action directors of all time, which is just glamorizing the real-life extrajudicial execution of one of America's enemies on foreign soil. Make no mistake I in know way condone or support Al-Quaeda or Bin Laden (obviously) but it was the numerous POV shots from the seal team, coupled with the "you're there on the ground" style of filmmaking that gave me a queasy feeling. To me it seemed like the film was trying to provide vicarious thrills to its audience by marrying its pov to that of the seal team. So the fact that the protagonist later sheds a single tear and seems like she has no direction in her life doesn't really erase the fact Bigelow exploited a real world execution, that was barely a year old at the time of the film's release, and assumed that her audience would implicitly support America's ability to covertly execute its enemies. And not only condone it but be thrilled at the idea of going along for the ride.

Michael said...

Travis Earl,

During the final raid sequence in ZERO DARK THIRTY, Bigelow does everything as a director to avoid typical action movie "satisfaction."

The whole thing is in complete darkness and thus, is somewhat incomprehensible in the traditional sense, or at least, lacks the "money shots" we're expected to see.

Civilians die during the raid, and crying women and children are lingered on and highlighted.

We don't actual know that Osama bin Laden is Osama bin Laden when he gets shot. We don't even see his face. This all deprives the audience of any visceral revenge thrills you would expect. I was actual there in the theatre going "Wait, was that him? When did they kill Bin Laden?"

Bigelow and Boal do everything in that final stretch to make it as unsatisfying and unexpected as possible, to make the "great victory" feel as hollow and empty as possible.

Travis Earl said...

@ Michael,
That was my reaction while watching. So if Bigelow's intention was to deny typical action movie satisfaction, in my opinion, she failed. The near darkness and lack of typical action movie money shots where meant to make the raid as realistic as possible, thereby immersing the viewer in experience more thoroughly. The protagonist's tears at the end and the shots lingering of children were meant to provide more depth and nuance to the worldview of the feature but in my opinion its to little to compensate for the pov snuff porno aspect of the raid sequence. In essence, Zero Dark Thirty is a more pretentious version of Act of Valor in the raid sequence. That's just my view of the thing. If it works for you great but as a non-American this is just my perspective on the whole thing and how it comes across.

Thrash Til' Death said...

^I've got to throw in my lot with Michael here (also non-American, for whatever that's worth). POV shots do have the potential to pornographise a subject, but they can also be used, in my reckoning, to set up the audience to expect prurient gratification and then subvert those expectations by offering a total anti-climax: "Hey, watch this, we're going to kill bin Laden in all sorts of graphic, gruesome detail! Bet you can't wait to see us pay him back for all those... wait, he's already been shot? Hm. How unfulfilling."

That kind of bait-and-switch is a powerful device, and it locks in with Zero Dark Thirty's themes nicely.

Travis Earl said...

I contend that the lack of a "money shot" is also in the service of verisimilitude and also might have been deemed more tasteful by the filmmakers. Again, the entire sequence is designed to have almost documentary feel, or pov from soemone on the ground with the seal team, hence the infrared shots and darkness. Of course there wouldn't be a slow-mo action shot of Osama's death with a triumphant musical cue because that would be entirely out of keeping with everything that came before it. I understand the arguments everyone's making but we were still treated to the sight of Osama's corpse and the celebration of the seal team afterward; even if it was muted, it was still triumphant. Bigelow delayed gratification but it was there. Her feints at attempting to appear balanced just completey rang false to me and came across as someone's attempt at having their cake and eating it too.

Michael said...

"we were still treated to the sight of Osama's corpse and the celebration of the seal team afterward; even if it was muted, it was still triumphant"

First of all, we never even see Bin Laden's face, and the closest we get to 'the sight of Osama's corpse' is in a body bag that totally obscures every part of his body. It seriously could not be more de-emphasized while still dramatizing the event.

As for the 'celebration' -- what do you think an audience is more like to come out of the theatre remembering: some very brief ooh-rah cheering (completely in-character, not incidentally) from some tertiary characters, or the lingering final shot of the film's lead character sobbing over sombre music?

Travis Earl said...

As I said before, I understand what Bigelow was attempting to do but considered it a failure. Simply because she attempted to make a statement about America being morally adrift doesn't mean she was successful or that I have to consider it successful.
I think people know what's in a body bag,namely a body. They didn't put his head on a pike a but it was still a showing how the seal team captured their prize. It was the moment the audience was given the payoff everyone seems so hellbent to deny is there.
Mind you, we've only been debating the final sequence of the film. We haven't touched on the crass and grossly exploitative use of real 911 calls from the 9/11 attacks or the quamire of the film's representation of toture.