The first five minutes of Lone Survivor feels like an advertisement for the Navy. The film opens with the training of Navy SEALS. With each one that rings the bell three times and quits, another perseveres and harnesses their freezing, shaking, breaking down bodies into an unconscious aggression.
Peter Berg brings his familiar Friday Night Lights style to this film, with each shot a mix of articulate calculation and handi-cam reality television that injects the scene with a sense of realism. Also familiar to this Berg joint is Taylor Kitch, who plays Michael Murphy, a bearded SEAL with a fiancé waiting for him back home. Alongside Kitch are Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson (Ben Foster), and Marcus Luttrell, played by the enigmatic Mark Wahlberg, whose previously mediocre film Pain and Gain dictates that his performance here be one of the better in his career.
From early on, we learn that these four men are the main cogs in Operation Red Wings, a mission in Afghanistan to “Capture and kill Ahmad Shah,” a terrorist whose malevolent beheading of his enemy acts as our means of introduction. Throughout, Berg’s praise of the SEALS is hard to deny, but there’s a mystery within Lone Survivor insomuch as it’s unclear whether this praise is an ironic juxtaposition of sanctioned violence against terrorists, as opposed to sanctioned violence via terrorists. What I mean to suggest is that, in different contexts, the violence depicted and the authorized “use of deadly force” are lauded on screen when it comes from uniformed, family men (the SEALS), whereas it is condemned and fuel for hatred against the terrorist target.
While hiding out under trees that line the mountain towering over their target – a man who killed 20 soldiers the week before – the four men are stumbled upon by ostensible goat herders. It’s here that Berg offers the complicated calculus that is human life during war time, presenting three options for the four SEALS that are discovered during their mission: they can let the herders go and assume to get captured in the next hour; they can leave the herders tied up, take their chances and assume that the herders won’t make it down soon enough to send reinforcements; they can eliminate the threat.
And with the subsequent rhetoric, Berg creates a jumping off point for the discourse over whether or not there is a place for benevolence in war, or whether everyone outside of the uniform should be considered an enemy.
From the moment that Murphy’s ethos “Good things happen to good people” is debunked, the resulting firefight and correlating demolition of bodies is slow-played and visceral. Like Zero Dark Thirty did a few years ago, Lone Survivor chronicles the fractured mission moreso than it actionizes it. No heroic score accompanies the many chapters of combat, and there is seemingly no end in sight, lest the title be indicative of the ultimate result.
As each soldier gets increasingly beaten up and closer to death, we are forced to see them as ubermenchen, wondering just how much longer they can survive, coerced to remember the opening scenes in which the training seemed to severe. At the same time, we are privy to a film that feels as if it veers into the “survival in isolation” genre that has been occupied this year by films like Gravity and All is Lost. However, here, nature is not to blame; here, the film thereomorphoses the Afghans, placing them akin to the wolves in The Grey or sharks in Open Water.
Regardless of Berg’s politics and castigation of man’s faith in man, the film is an exercise in slowing time, exemplifying the horrors of war as best can be done at a safe distance from theater screen.