Monday, July 14, 2014

Lone Survivor: compromised war film

I just saw Lone Survivor, and I formed what I felt was a pretty solid, informed opinion of the film. Then, as one does, I went on Rotten Tomatoes to see how it jives with the rest of the world’s reactions.

Imagine my surprise!

I thought Lone Survivor was astoundingly inept, a mass-produced clot of war film clich├ęs, with a hilariously limited narrative vocabulary. I’d call it "predictable," but that word suggests too much coherence… it was so predictable, it felt like a recitation, or perhaps even a stutter. It was odd, then, that I could read down a litany of positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and discover that other critics found it “grueling, tense, action-soaked” (Jim Schembri, News Talk), “visceral, exciting and thought-provoking” (Henry Fitzherbert, Daily and Sunday Express), and “morally complex” with a climax that was “tense and surprisingly moving” (Ashley Clark, Time Out London). Boy, I did not see the same film as these folks.

Before I jump into it, I have to answer my own ethical quibbles about movie reviewing (which are one of the main reasons I tend not to engage in this highly questionable activity). Because look… if you’re here wondering whether you’ll like the movie, I can give you at least one reliable answer: there’s a 75% chance that you will, because that’s the proportion of reviewers who really dug it. And if that’s what you’re looking for, I’m not sure I’ll be rendering you much of a service by elucidating my own opinions on the topic. At best, I’ll be giving you some starting-points for judging the film by your own standards, and at worst, I’ll be ruining something you might have really enjoyed.

Of course, maybe you're here for the same reason I was at Rotten Tomatoes in the first place… you've already seen the movie, and you're looking for another opinion to validate you (or contradict you, if you're that type of masochist). Or maybe you've got a bunch of indistinct feels about the film, and you're looking for something to help you sort them out. I guess those reasons – the less prescriptive, more reflective reasons – are the reasons I'm going to follow through with writing this mini-critique-review artifact.

It feels weird to enumerate a series of negatives, as if they were positives. It feels like an attempt to quantify an absence, or prove a bunch of counterfactuals. Nonetheless, it’s all I have to go on, and it can be summed up thusly… first, the film was trite and sophistic about its subject matter. Second, its selection of plot developments – what I would call its “narrative vocabulary” – was tragicomically limited. Third, it balked on the basic duty of characterization, which was one of its few promising opportunities to redeem its other shortcomings.

We have to start, of course, with critique number 1: "trite and sophistic about its subject matter." I'm alluding, generally, to the subject matter of battlefield combat and loyalty, all the expectations that are drawn from its genre ("war film" as envisioned in the post-9/11 age). The war film generally has several merits, aside from its basic objective of dramatizing violence. A war film also has to engage with the theme of brotherhood, whether by romanticizing it (Thin Red Line) or subverting it (Platoon) or both (Full Metal Jacket, Forrest Gump). It also has to face larger questions about the morality of war, and its effects on its participants (Apocalypse Now, The Hurt Locker). These questions are always latent in any dramatization of war… if you don’t make some gesture toward them in your narrative, the absence is going to be conspicuous.

Of all the war films I've seen… going all the way back to David Lean, Ivan’s Childhood, and The Last Command… Lone Survivor is the most myopic in these areas, bordering on frank propaganda. Any consideration of motives, or ethics, or moral compromise is replaced by a general sense of righteousness and martyrdom, a sharp line through the middle of the movie that places every character in one of two camps: either they're good people on our side, or they're bad people on the other side. This dynamic governs all the attempted "complexities" of the film: the debate over whether to break the rules of engagement, and the third-act willingness of a local tribe to oppose the Taliban.

This sharp, high-contrast us-versus-them frame has some visual repercussions… the Marines are a quartet of bearded white guys surrounded in a sea of middle eastern hostiles, and they kill dozens with impunity, but never hurt or endanger anyone except their intended targets, the mooks who are firing at them. The primary antagonist, the "target," has no crime and no motivations except for killing Americans… in particular, sending a horde of terrorists after the protagonists. Oddly, the Hollywood terrorists seem fond of wearing eyeliner.

Also, it seems the only “mistake” the SEALs make is following the rules of engagement, and the story is built around this mistake costing the lives of a dozen or more Americans.

The second criticism I noted, above, is the limited narrative vocabulary. The film's defenders will justify this by pointing to the non-fiction basis of the story (the book "Lone Survivor" by Marcus Luttrell, played in the film by Mark Wahlberg). Indeed, from my limited reading (i.e. some related Wikipedia pages), Lone Survivor made a valiant attempt to adhere to the reality of the situation, as it was portrayed in the written account. If this was your sole criteria, the film is probably really excellent. But I need to judge it on its merits as an actual film, and my ultimate impression is that the filmmakers left themselves with very few dramatic devices to leverage.

The movie really had three acts. The first one entailed the following standard scenes: SEALs sitting around making crass jokes and being melancholy about their families back home; SEALs in a briefing room, going over mission details; SEALs in helicopters. This was humanizing, and it showed some promise for the characters (the most interesting of whom isn't included as an active combatant in the mission), but it's really just a montage of generic war-movie deployment scenes.

Approximately the same thing happened in the second act. There were SEALs hiding and looking through their scopes, reliably cycled with sequences of frantic shooting and hiding behind rocks. If this doesn't sound generic enough, I'll break it down further: there were close-ups of SEALs aiming, grunting in pain, and exchanging sentimentalities; medium-shots of terrorists dropping like video game targets; SEALs falling down mountains in brutal detail (this “everyone falling down the rocks” event happened three times); and a few slow, gauzy, backlit heroic death scenes. The pattern was so consistent and so drawn out, it became numbing.

I'll admit that there was one welcome interlude where the four protagonists debated the value of a non-combatant enemy’s life, but this was governed entirely by the above-referenced dynamics: us versus them, mercy as a form of heroic martyrdom, a stimulating American debate about moral compromise carried out over the secure, helpless bodies of primitive locals. If this is all I have left to praise, there's definitely something missing from this 80-minute action centerpiece.

Finally, in the third act, the last remaining SEAL finds some friends among the horde of Others that make up the indigenous population of Afghanistan. This act might have been fascinating, in a stronger movie, but it was left with nothing to stand on. All anybody could do was posture with guns, fire the guns at each other across the dirt, and make serious, suspicious, vaguely sympathetic faces at Mark Wahlberg. Incidentally, this is the part of the film that was least accurate with respect to the events in the book.

I know some reviewers found this relentless barrage of gunfire to be consistently exciting and visually stimulating. For me, it was an exercise in simplicity so basic, it almost crossed the line into minimalism. Unfortunately, there was nothing provocative or experimental about it, nothing to challenge any preconceptions I had, or even to evoke some emotional connection to the violence and its consequences. It was a piecing-together of gun fetish footage and romantic war propaganda, captured by a photographer and stitched together by an editor, decently crafted, but totally bereft of any creativity. As I said above: its visual and narrative vocabulary was limited.

Finally, there's my third point: there was no meaningful characterization in this film. At least one reviewer thought this might be a smart choice (they're supposed to function as a single cohesive unit! Get it?) but with four excellent actors, they might have really capitalized on this angle. So where's the sensitivity, the intimacy, the individuality? Maybe the book was the problem, but really... Did these four guys seem blank, anonymous, and undifferentiated in the book? Did they seem like a countdown, like each SEAL was another life to lose in a Mega Man game?

It wasn't a virtue, and even if it was intentional, it was a bad call. You can do great things with four characters -- give them different motivations (everybody was fighting for America and their spouse back home) and give them a semblance of back-story that might explain their battlefield behavior. Give them time to change... come to some realization, follow some kind of arc. Even the one survivor -- Marcus Luttrell, played by Wahlberg -- had no sense of differentiation, no development, except for maybe the fact that he ordered everyone to follow the rules of engagement. If there was supposed to be some sort of karmic significance in this decision and the subsequent tragedy, the film didn't give any indication of it.

I am not a cinematic pacifist, and I have nothing against the war film as a genre. I think you can romanticize our armed forces, and you can dramatize the pain and tragedy of war, without necessarily committing an offense against taste. But I think Lone Survivor failed to do those things, and its most redeeming contribution, at this point in Hollywood history, is to provide a template for the failed war film: a catalog of predictability, a conspicuous dearth of sophistication, that future war films should see as their lowest common denominator.

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