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Lone Survivor

Mission impossible

Lone Survivor

At the conclusion of a recent preview of Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor (last weekend’s highest-grossing picture in this country), a number of people in the audience cheered and clapped, some of them rising to their feet. It might have been interesting to ask some of them what they were cheering. They might have been celebrating the survival of Navy Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), a member of a Navy SEAL team on a mission to kill a Taliban leader in Afghanistan in 2005. (This is no spoiler, given the title and the large-scale promotional effort.)

The movie’s poignantly somber coda comprises a photographic retrospective of the other team members who died, along with other comrades sent to rescue them. But the cheers came after this remembrance. To at least one member of the audience, this was both an understandable and a slightly strange response.

Lone Survivor, based on the published account of Luttrell, tells of the SEALs’ fatally compromised mission. After an unforeseen confrontation exposes the four SEALs (Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, and Ben Foster) to discovery by the enemy, their escape is cut off and they’re forced to fight a desperate battle until an air rescue can be effected, one which doesn’t succeed.

About half the movie is devoted to this harrowing episode, in sometimes gruesome and possibly hyperbolic detail. There are some competent but run-of-the-mill preliminaries at the SEALs’ base serving to introduce us to the men, but their courageous and largely doomed stand is the focus of Lone Survivor.

The filmmakers have conceived and executed these sequences with a savage intensity. This extended section is kinetically riveting even as it’s increasingly difficult to watch. Berg puts the audience in the midst of the bloody mayhem, and the action is photographed and edited expertly. As the men are attacked by much larger numbers of Taliban, the aggregating combat incidents and suffering become harrowing for the audience. Berg doesn’t smooth away any of this or attempt to spare us any of the brutality. There may be merit in this approach and his intentions may not be exploitative, but this immersion in the battlefield ordeal almost becomes a kind of violence porn.

And the staging of these action sequences raises the question of exaggeration. Whatever Luttrell’s account contains, there are narrative elements and depictions included here that he couldn’t have witnessed. And some of the SEALs’ defense attempts—their physical exploits and punishment—seem larger than reality. This sense of heightened effect extends into the climactic, nick-of-time enactment of Luttrell’s escape from death in an Afghan village.

More than 15 years ago, Artvoice film editor M. Faust took issue with those who regarded Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan as an implicit warning about war’s horrors. It was instead, he wrote, invoking patriotism and implicitly pro-war. Lone Survivor makes no pretense of being anti-war, least of all the one in Afghanistan. It presents itself as a mournful, if viscerally effective celebration of some brave men’s terrible sacrifices. Like the sacrifices in Saving Private Ryan, the rationale isn’t exposed or addressed.

The Navy SEALs have enjoyed a long run of favorable press, amplified in 2011 by the mission-accomplished attack on bin Laden’s redoubt in Pakistan, but the movie SEALs’ mission seems ill-conceived despite the show of planning and calculation. The team doesn’t seem to have had a reliable escape route even had it succeeded. And Lone Survivor, of course, never seems interested in the sometimes unfathomable complexities of fighting a guerrilla force in a country where it has popular support, or at least coerced cooperation.

The people in the theater who clapped and cheered were probably moved and also trying to extract a remnant of patriotic grace from the war’s obscurities and frustrations. Another question arises: Is this movie inevitably if perhaps unintentionally trading on those susceptibilities?

Watch the trailer for Lone Survivor

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