I’m trying to figure out whether Peter Berg is a formerly promising filmmaker who has turned into a hack, or if that early promise was all in my head. I dismissed his critical and commercial flop from last year, Battleship, as an unfortunate, high-profile hiccup, but now the release of his current movie, Lone Survivor, is making me reassess. It’s not a bad movie, actually. It just confuses paying tribute to the heroism of four ill-fated Navy SEALs with making a recruitment commercial.
The film is based on the account of Marcus Luttrell, who was on a recon mission in Afghanistan with three friends and fellow Navy SEALs in 2005 when things went bad. Mark Wahlberg portrays Marcus, who serves as the combat medic for a small team that parachutes into the mountains to pinpoint a Taliban commander’s location. When an Afghani goatherd and his young grandsons stumble on the SEALs’ vantage point overlooking the Taliban base, the lieutenant in charge of the mission (Taylor Kitsch) fatefully decides against killing the old man and his boys and releases them, knowing that they’ll likely bring a hundred or so armed fighters up the mountain after them.
The director is best in the interlude after the SEALs release their captives, as the soldiers try to make a run for it before hunkering down in a strategic place where they can stand and fight the Taliban. This scene has a great, sweaty dread to it. Still, Berg’s documentary style rubs me the wrong way, just the way Paul Greengrass’ similar style did in Captain Phillips. This approach to making a historical thriller has become overused to the point where it’s now passé. The objectivity now just feels like an excuse for the filmmakers not to apply any sort of critical thinking to the material.
Berg seems uninterested in that, anyway. The film is a panegyric to the bravery and camaraderie of American soldiers, unpolluted by any skepticism toward the wider war or toward the commanders who send the SEALs into a war zone. It doesn’t even give me, a civilian, any particular insight into how these elite fighters do their jobs. The only thing separating this from the movies Hollywood made in World War II is the sympathetic depiction of an anti-Taliban Afghan villager (Ali Suliman) who risks his life to protect a badly wounded Marcus and receives precious little reward for it.
At least in his 2007 thriller The Kingdom, Berg recognized how even well-intentioned American ventures abroad can have unintended consequences. Now the sentiments in his films have gotten so woolly that Berg has turned into a more respectable version of Michael Bay. The men who lost their lives alongside Marcus are cardboard heroes, and we get little sense of them as people. Surely they deserved better than this skillful but undercooked war movie to memorialize them.
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, and Taylor Kitsch. Written and directed by Peter Berg, based on Marcus Luttrell’s memoir. Rated R.