You didn’t need to like football to fall in love with Friday Night Lights, and you don’t have to like patriotic showcases or agree with the War in Afghanistan to be moved by Lone Survivor.
In Lone Survivor, writer-director Peter Berg infuses the war movie with the same emotional intensity that he found in football when he created the terrific television series Friday Night Lights. From the first episode of Friday Night Lights, which he wrote and directed, Berg made his audience care deeply about the intricacies of a football game, about the power of football to make people feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves, and found the humanity in a sport that can easily be dismissed as foolish.
You didn’t need to like football to fall in love with Friday Night Lights, and you don’t have to like patriotic showcases or agree with the War in Afghanistan to be moved by Lone Survivor. Lone Survivor is implicitly patriotic: it’s the story of very brave American soldiers yet told without a political point of view. It isn’t flag-waving propaganda. It’s what an action movie should be at its best; the shots fired are less interesting than the personal struggles of the men in battle.
Lone Survivor tells the story of Operation Red Wings, the disastrous 2005 US Navy SEALs’ operation in Afghanistan to assassinate Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, which resulted in the death of many American soldiers. The film’s title is its biggest spoiler, which allows Berg to focus on his characters rather than the machinations of a suspense plot. When they come across a group of goatherders in the mountains, they have to decide whether to “terminate the complication” or let them go, risking a potential attack from the Taliban army once discovered. Unable to tell the difference between friend and foe when encountering Afghan nationals, they don’t want to create unnecessary casualties of war. Their mercy proves a fatal mistake.
This leads to a major and extended gunfight, which is physically brutal but absorbing because Berg focusses on how each character reacts. Team leader Michael Murphy (the stalwart Taylor Kitsch) constantly takes stock of his men, makes sure they’re okay, and is unafraid to take great personal risk if it serves the team. Matt Axelson (the gifted Ben Foster) — the most settled of the bunch, a happily married man — enters a zone of intense concentration when the battle begins and remains calm even as the injuries accumulate, firing off shot after shot with expert precision. Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) is most prone to over-react, although he’s also the first one to have real reason to. And Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) is always the optimist: even after getting battered tumbling down a rocky mountain, he counts his blessings that he still has his line of defense: his rifle. As the battle goes on, we learn that there comes a time in battle when you’re no longer fighting for your own survival, but for the survival of your brothers in arms.
Berg is drawn to stories about the macho all-American man – from the football players in Friday Night Lights to the soldiers in Lone Survivor — and excels at humanizing the stereotype, thereby making these characters accessible to all. Yes, the men abide by a code of honour, endure beyond belief, act with professionalism, and suffer stoically. But their frailties, faults, and personal troubles are equally important.
Berg spends almost a third of the film establishing the characters’ personal lives, their camaraderie, and their relationships. When he opens the film with photos of their loved ones —an old Hollywood cliche foretelling deaths — it’s surprisingly powerful, especially thanks to the stirring score by Explosions in the Sky. It reminds us they have lives outside of their jobs and people they care about. The men are neither wary of the battles ahead of them nor are they excited for the action: they’re just doing their job. Through the initiation of one of the newest recruits (Alexander Ludwig), we come to understand the sense of belonging that being in the S.E.A.L.S. creates, and the humour that helps them through the tough scenarios that it’s their job to endure.
Just as Friday Night Lights tended to ignore the strongest arguments against football — rampant misogyny and brain damage were never issues for the Dillon team — Lone Survivor also ignores the political implications of the film. Lone Survivor never questions whether the men should be in this war in the first place. It’s fitting since the soldiers can’t afford to question this in the heat of battle, and the film is their story. Instead, the film is an immediate and often terrifying action movie, where every bullet fired could truly injure or even be fatal. And perhaps even more remarkably, it reminds us just how hard it is for a skilled soldier to die in battle: it ends with a long fight and a whimper, not a bang.