Broadly speaking, Hollywood war movies since the Reagan era tend to fall into three camps: bloody fantasies, a la the Rambo series, that center on lone, superhuman warrior-heroes; relatively bloodless spectacles in the vein of Top Gun, showcasing the state-of-the-art technology developed by the U.S. military-industrial complex; and artful blockbusters, like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, that feature immersive re-creations of combat and seem designed to appeal to both prowar and antiwar viewers. The most interesting thing about Lone Survivor, a Hollywood war movie opening in Chicago this weekend, is that it doesn’t really fit in any of these subgenres. Writer-director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Hancock) seems to have taken cues from such 1940s ensemble action dramas as Howard Hawks’s Air Force (1943) and William Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), movies that aren’t about war so much as the camaraderie, sacrifice, and thankless work that characterize life in the armed forces.
Berg’s film, based on the memoir Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10, dramatizes a perilous Navy SEAL mission from 2005 to capture or kill a Taliban leader in the Hindu Kush mountains. Berg is more interested in the SEALs who carried out this mission than in the mission per se, much less in why the U.S. armed forces invaded Afghanistan in the first place. This might trouble viewers who object to the intervention; yet as former Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in his consideration of Clint Eastwood’s World War II diptych Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima (both 2006), “distinguishing between meaningful and senseless wars might be a civilian luxury.” I’d also contend that if we still watch Air Force or G.I. Joe today, it’s not for what they say about the U.S. government’s reasons for entering World War II.
In any case, Lone Survivor is far less hawkish than its ad campaign makes it out to be. The posters suggest a Rambo-style action vehicle for Mark Wahlberg, whose face appears under the macho-sounding tagline “Live to tell the story.” In fact, Wahlberg doesn’t become Survivor‘s main character until late in the film, and the first hour is all but action free. This portion takes place on an Afghan military base, presenting the daily lives of SEALs in between missions. As in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande), activity on the base reflects multiple seasons of life. We see new recruits discovering their place in the professional team, older SEALs writing to wives and longtime girlfriends at home, and older officers who’ve grown thoughtful in their authoritative roles. Everyone seems to be wrestling with homesickness, which makes the communal vibe on base especially poignant.
The first half of Lone Survivor is surprisingly affectionate and often unfashionably sentimental. Most of Berg’s SEALs are strict monogamists who try to lavish as much attention as they can on their partners back home. In one running gag, a SEAL played by Emile Hirsch obsesses over helping his fiancee redecorate their bathroom via e-mail; in another, Wahlberg’s bachelor SEAL nervously asks Hirsch about one of his fiancee’s friends, on whom he has a schoolboy crush. The characters’ propensity for committed relationships informs their interactions with each other. There are no apparent rivalries on base, and when the new recruits show up, the nastiest hazing ritual they’re subjected to is having to perform a Chippendale’s-style dance in front of a group.
In the wake of such recent documentaries as Standard Operating Procedure and The Invisible War, Berg’s idealized portrait of the U.S. armed forces might strain credibility for some viewers. It’s worth noting, though, that his ideal soldier couldn’t be any more different from Sylvester Stallone’s. The characters here are sensitive and cooperative, motivated foremost by a sense of duty. Berg emphasizes this ideal through his casting of Hirsch and Ben Foster, actors associated with serious and independent movies rather than action fare. His message seems to be that anyone can be a soldier, regardless of whether they conform to the macho stereotype. (Berg’s last film, the relatively impersonal Battleship, also delivered that message, making a hero of a legless veteran in physical therapy.)
This inclusive sentiment gives the second half of Lone Survivor its emotional pull; it feels particularly devastating to watch the destruction of a team so admirable in its constitution. As you might infer from the title, only one person survives the mission into the mountains, yet Berg refuses to respond to the tragedy with xenophobic outrage. The most surprising turn in Lone Survivor comes near the end, when Wahlberg, stranded in the mountains after all his fellow SEALs have been killed, finds refuge in a village. A Pashtun man hides Wahlberg from Taliban soldiers; several other villagers even sacrifice their lives in defending him. During the end credits, amid a tribute to the real-life SEALs who died in the mission, a title explains that the villagers acted on the traditional code of Pashtunwali, which instructs them to grant asylum to people fleeing from enemies.
Berg presents the Pashtun villagers with clear admiration, suggesting that they have numerous values in common with the American SEALs: community, obedience, self-sacrifice. This doesn’t feel like Berg paying lip service to the people his soldiers are in Afghanistan to defend; rather, it seems like the linchpin of his argument. His admiration for the soldiers stems from a sincere belief that they stand for universal values. By presenting these values as central to Pashtun life, he emphasizes how universal they are.