Making a film about war and military conflict can be a tricky thing. There’s a very fine line between making an exploitative war film that uses real events as a means of profit, and a film that pays respect to the events and all those involved. Thankfully, Peter Berg’s newest war drama, Lone Survivor, falls comfortably into the latter category, functioning as both a love-letter to the U.S. Navy SEALS and a testament to the bravery and valor of all the men involved in the tragic Operation Red Wings. While the film may be a bit heavy-handed, Berg has undoubtedly created one of the most visceral and brutal depictions of modern combat to date.
Right off the bat, the most noticeable aspect of Lone Survivor is Peter Berg’s undying admiration for the men and women of any and every aspect of the U.S. military system. Berg chooses to open the film with a lengthy montage of stock photos and footage of the Navy SEALS’ rigorous training, showing the extreme dedication and fortitude each and every man and woman needs to become a SEAL. While initially this seems a bit over the top and manipulative, in context of the film, the opening works well. Once the action starts happening you see the incredible amount of damage and beatings these SEALS have to endure, retroactively improving the opening montage as you realize it sets the stage for just how much excruciating pain a Navy SEAL can endure and how they are able to hold out for so long against such insurmountable odds. It’s funny, because the opening is representative of the entire experience. There are multiple moments in the film where Berg feels like he may be pushing an agenda, where the material feels like it’s toeing the line between the true story and manipulative propaganda. However, at the last minute every time, Berg manages to reign in the jingoism and allows the story to tell itself. That’s not to say that the film feels overtly or obnoxiously pro-America, just that some of the events seem overly simplified to shed our troops in a better light.
Regardless of his intentions, Berg has once again proven he’s a master of personal, visceral filmmaking that completely absorbs you into the events on screen. While the highlight is undoubtedly the lengthy Operation Red Wings sequence, even in the beginning Berg does an admirable job of setting up the characters in personal, heartfelt ways. While all of the origins of the SEALS definitely feel heavy-handed, the film only has two-hours to tell an extremely broad, expansive story, so it’s understandable that they chose simple but effective backstories. Nevertheless, Berg’s direction immediately allows you to recognize the incredibly strong bond these men had, which effectively propels the drama for the rest of the film. As painstaking and brutal as the Operation Red Wing sequence is thanks to the staging, cinematography, and direction, the real reason the sequence hits you like a freight train is because Berg has crafted characters that we actually care about. While the visceral filmmaking effectively absorbs you into the fight, in the end it would mean nothing if we didn’t care about the participants. The blend of his great character work and his brilliant staging of the entire forty-five minute plus sequence combine to form one of the best action set pieces in any war film, one that vice-grips your heart from beginning to end and stays with you long after the credits have rolled.
While the film as a whole is not as memorable, Berg can sit back in satisfaction knowing that he’s done this story justice. It may be a bit too patriotic for its own good and the heavy-handedness can be distracting, but in the end these are admissible flaws because Berg has crafted an intimate and powerful drama that’s leaps and bounds better than almost every modern war film.
Review by James Hausman