Saturday, February 8, 2014

Lone Survivor

It would be a fair assessment to say that my eyes began to tear up at the opening credits of Lone Survivor, and were seldom dry for the next two hours. I'm not unique; the Boy said as much on the way out, along with saying he'd love to see it again.

Yeah. It's that good. In our world it easily shot to the top of "best films of the 2013", though it may not be my top—it might be and it will certainly be top five.

I can't quite explain the emotionalism. It can't be that it's "based on a true story" because it is openly ficitonalized—and, in fact, the historical import of the film is nearly irrelevant. Unlike, say, Blackhawk Down, which fit into a larger picture of the military under Clinton and the role of the US in Africa, this movie could be about any four SEALs, sent into any village, and presented with a difficult situation.

Dramatically, that's a great thing. The real people, the inspirations, are shown in pictures at the end of the movie, which, dulce et decorum est.

So, what is it? It's partly The Charge of the Light Brigade effect: The opening montage of actual training shows what hardships special forces endure to become special forces. (And let us pause for a moment to marvel at the volunteer army.) And this brutal training—the sort of things the effete cluck at as "unnecessary"—is vitally necessary not just for physical endurance, training and toughening, but to build a brotherhood.

And so, in a way, the opening montage is justified by the next two hours. The hazing, of sorts, of new recruits, the eagerness of same recruits to actually go on a mission, and when things go sideways, the willingness to sacrifice for your brother, or to survive for him when it might be easier to just lay down and die.

And that, I think, is what it is, why this evokes such strong emotions. The note hit over-and-over again is that of male camaraderie, played unironically, straight and true, to the end.

We don't get a lot of that these days. Male relationships are usually between slackers. They're goofs. You kinda know they're not going to be there for each other, at least not until things get really bad.

What a concept to have a band of men who, however hard they rag on each other, know with as much certainty as anyone can know anything that they can depend on each other.

On top of that, it's a competent action film, helmed by personal favorite, Peter Berg. Not just competent, but the best in recent memory: The story doesn't adhere to action movie conventions, which means, for example, that when the heroes get shot, or—and this is unseen in modern action films—fall more than a few feet, it hurts.

And it doesn't just hurt in a Wile E. Coyote sense, where one scene has them taking damage, and then they're fine in the next. When one of these guys takes a hit, they feel it, you feel it, and you feel the scar, the torn cartilage, the blow to the head that says you'll never be quite right again.

It also doesn't have a glib "10 Little Indians" approach where the characters are picked off one-by-one. Even though the title, and opening scene, tell you all you need to know about who's going to survive, the protagonists hang on for dear life, and you are rooting for the story to come out differently than you know it must.

Mark Wahlberg is good as Marcus Luttrell, the eponymous lone survivor who went on to write the book. Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) and Emile Hirsch (Killer Joe) are also good as Michael Murphy and Danny Deitz respectively. (Michael Murphy was the subject of a 2013 documentary which unfortunately got no theater play in our neighborhood.)

Ben Foster...well...he just becomes Matt "Axe" Axelson. It's uncanny, from the pictures shown. I saw his mother talking about the performance after the fact, and she said it was like having him back for a moment. (And if that doesn't rip your heart out, we can't be friends.)

The supporting players are also—well, the best way to describe it is "genuine". The whole thing feels very genuine.

Although I've always suspected Berg was not entirely at home with modern Hollywood's leftist values, I can't really back that up. I've heard that he was concerned about The Kingdom being too jingoistic, for example.

This movie (much like The Kingdom) is about as apolitical as it can be, given the circumstances. I have, of course, heard some really dumb movie critic observations. One person, who I can only assume didn't stay to the end, said the movie's message was "brown people bad". (And Afghan village is critical to Luttrell's survival, and they protect him at grave personal risk.)

It's only pro-America in the sense that, yes, we have a military, and it's staffed with good people who make great personal sacrifices for the rest of us, and we're not always worthy of that.

Well, if you can't muster at least that much pro-American sentiment, you're basically indifferent to America's survival at all (at best).

The closest it gets to a political point is that the key plot point, that starts the terrible events in action, is whether or not the SEALs should kill three villagers who have stumbled over them. One is clearly Taliban, and the other two can be expected to inform out of sheer survival necessity.

In a brief argument, they debate whether they should kill them, whether they can kill them (legally), the repercussions of either way—they basically know they're dead if they let them go. The fact that the Press will attack them comes up. The Rules of Engagement are discussed.

It's a great scene. Again, very Charge of the Light Brigade.

It's already been snubbed, getting just a couple of sound Oscar noms. War films can't get awards unless they're anti-war. (And this isn't pro-war, for crying out loud. It just posits that the character of the soldiers is actually a bit nobler and higher-minded than Hollywood is comfortable with.) Being an exemplary action film doesn't get you anything come award time either.

But to those who say "Well, it's not a great movie. It just gets its gravitas from the real story, and from the action," I say "OK, let's see a dozen more like that from the past 40 years."

And it's a shame, because the War on Terror has produced more than its share of gripping stories that Hollywood eschewed for making anti-war, anti-America propaganda.

If The Arts owe our soldiers anything, it's to tell their stories. I'm glad this one got told. It's in the top 30 for the 2013's releases, but that may not be enough to encourage similar films, since it probably won't do big business overseas.

But if it were up to me, I'd be turning out pictures like this 3-4 times a year. You'd never run out of stories.

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