Lone Survivor is not what I would call a particularly bad movie. I think the word I could best use to describe it is “exhausting.” See, this is a war film, and war films are generally about showing the stories of the men and women (but let’s face it, usually just men) who have fought, been injured, and died in the name of American conflict. Some war movies exist to show the atrocity of war, while others exist to demonstrate the heroics of the soldiers stuck in the theater of battle. Lone Survivor seems to fall a bit into both camps, reveling in the imagery of the former, while attempting to provide a story thematically closer to the latter. What comes out of this is a film that works, but by no means transcends the genre like, say, Saving Private Ryan or The Hurt Locker. What you come away with is an appreciation for the suffering that the men in this particular operation endured, and unfortunately, not much else.
The story here is about a team of SEALs on an operation to kill a Taliban leader, and when their location is discovered by some local goat shepherds, they must decide whether to kill them so as to keep their location secure, or let them go and opt not to commit a war crime. Their decision ultimately leads to a firefight that takes up the majority of the film, and as far as war cinematography goes, it’s not bad. However, it feels like its war choreography for a different type of movie than the one that’s presented here. The characters are all set up nicely beforehand with some humanizing backstory, but as the title gives away, only one of them is going to come out of this alive. This means we get to watch each one die in very heart-wrenching ways, but not before seeing them horribly brutalized in the process. Every bruise, cut, bullet wound and death is dwelt upon at great length, and it becomes tiresome after a while. It feels more akin to a horror film than a war movie, with the army of Taliban taking the role of Jason Voorhees.
I can easily see how some might find view that as a fatal flaw in the film’s presentation, and while I don’t think it’s the best choice of direction, I see why director Peter Berg made the choices he did here. I may say the film is exhausting, but really, I think that’s the point. Berg wants to demonstrate the pain and suffering these men went through in the cause of fighting against terrorism. And he does a very good job of making the audience feel just how brutal war can be on good men, and just how much training and resolve it can take to endure that pain. Is this a particularly deep message? No, not really, and there’s a lot of potential to show off the individual heroism and strategic insight of these men that’s never quite capitalized upon. But I don’t think that makes this a bad movie either.
That said, Lone Survivor is not a movie I would ever watch again. It’s not a high point of the war genre, but, while a bit odd in its choice of focus, I wouldn’t qualify it as being a bad movie either. If you are interested in the story of Operation Red Wings, I’d say that the film doesn’t do a bad job of giving you an engaging version of it. If you’re interested in a film with something profound or interesting to say about the nature of war and the people who fight in them, that’s much better stuff out there.
What is your favorite war film? Let me know in the comments below.