26 September, 2014

We Could be Heroes

Just For One Day
A Review on Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor is a pretty good movie. Yet, for all of its documentarian aspirations, it never reaches the intensity of Captain Phillips. For all of its artfully executed slamming and banging, it never reaches the heights of Black Hawk Down. It's a movie that does its darnedest to be an important film. Yet, after two hours, a desire to justice to the story, and using many techniques of similar films, Lone Survivor falls far short of its goal as one of the great movies about the War on Terror.

The problem isn't that isn't the best film in a crowded class, it is that it's chosen form is problematic. The central stumbling block of Lone Survivor is that it never gets past its own artifice. For all of its desire to tell the real story (which is a phrase, I fell, should be in quotes), you are ultimately looking at Marky Mark, Into the Wild, the bi-boyfriend from Six Feet Under, and John Carter, he of Mars. But, you know, with beards.

All of these actors are either incredibly talented (with the exception of Taylor Kitsch, the patron saint of unwanted gifts, a man who thinks that the key to tough guy roles like Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood is to do nothing, and the single greatest charisma vacuum since Shia Lebeouf), so it isn't their lack of trying that causes this disconnect. In fact, its the inverse that causes the problem. They're good actors and we know it. And they look like it. And it doesn't work.

As desperately as this movie wants to look like real events-- and claims to be based in reality-- it looks fake. It looks great, but the eye of the movie goer is smarter than all of the movie's efforts and gestures. We know its fakes because it looks fake. To claim to hue so closely to reality and then to look fake is unacceptable. To quote Red Letter Media: "You might not have noticed it, but your brain did."

The fundamental problem is boiled down to a single fact: The only Navy SEAL who very clearly does not belong in this movie is the Navy SEAL the film is is named after. That's a problem.

With that said, Lone Survivor is a movie that is technically proficient at a level that few directors can ever dream of achieving. If youv'e watched The Kingdom this shouldn't come as a surprise. Peter Berg has an excellent sense of how an action scene is supposed to work. His storytelling is also admirable. It's simple. It's unobtrusive. We know these men through minor sketches and little conversations. While they fail to add up to anything greater, we know who these men are with very little effort.

It is also worth noting how the failure of authority and the system fails the film's heroes. It's a minor chord that United 93 revolves around and, while they are very different movies, it's a point that is well worth making, however minor it may be. It's also a point that seems more relevant as time goes on. It's one thing for our servicemen and servicewomen to die in combat, but it's another thing for them to die because of bureaucratic SNAFUs. It's one of the few times the movie moves away from the hagiography its trying so hard to craft.

Lone Survivor is a perfectly capable, action thriller with some very well played realist tones, but it isn't much more than that. In a world where people are coming back from the service in greater numbers than ever (or not coming back), these kinds of stories are not rare. They exist as books, as 60 Minutes interviews, as articles, and as people who are standing next to you at the bar. They're out there and this isn't one of them.

To be good is not enough. What's more is that truly excellent films about the War on Terror (or the Long War or whatever you want to call it) already exist. Paul Greengrass has directed most of them, the rest are directed by Kathryn Bigelow, and the best one was directed by an Italian guy fifty years ago.

The film has other problems. The lives of the Afghans and the motives of the Taliban are played out too simplistically. It relegates the Taliban to a bunch of decapitation hungry goon (which, to be fair, they are). It also paints the Afghans (specifically the Pashtuns) as a noble people driven by a sense of honor. It's Orientalist claptrap and it's also a plot point out of the Soviet-Afghan War movie, The Beast. The movie doesn't have space for these people or that sort of story telling. Which is a shame, because that's one of the most compelling parts of the story and, unfortunately, the movie's last act does lag.

And there's other points, but who cares? If you want to see a compelling movie based around real events, this is it. If you want to see something more substantial, something that has thoughts and feelings on the state of the human species and the complexity of the human soul go see Zero Dark Thirty. Or, better yet, read Black Hawk Down. Or, like, engage with a veteran. You probably aren't going to get a rad story, but you might, you know, learn something.

In the end, Lone Survivor tells its story with skill, empathy, and with no little amount of awe, but it still is not enough. It doesn't do its subjects justice.

Also, its cover of "Heroes" is embarrassingly bad and woefully out of place. Instead listen to the real version.


James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and has opinions about the War on Terror but saves them for when he's had too much to drink. You can follow him on twitter.