It took me awhile, but I finally got around to seeing Lone Survivor, which continues to do brisk business at the box office after four weeks in release.
I’m glad I saw Peter Berg’s latest film, but I can’t do justice to the conversations I’ve had about this film in a little blog post.
First, here’s a brief word on Peter Berg. He appeared on my radar as an actor (and directed an episode) on the late ‘90s television show Chicago Hope. I was impressed with his film Friday Night Lights and even more impressed with the series of the same title, one of my favorites in recent years for reasons regular readers know all too well.
Given his comfort with visceral, masculine storytelling, Lone Survivor falls right into Berg’s wheelhouse. This is the true story of a Navy Seal and his team who set out to capture or kill an al Qaeda leader in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2005. The title of the film makes the outcome a foregone conclusion.
Now, back to those conversations. While I tend to go to the majority of movies I see by myself, sometimes I get to see a movie with someone then enjoy a discussion that expands my thinking on or appreciation of a film or, equally useful, offers something challenging that throws my perspective into sharp relief from other points of view.
Often this happens in my classes, too, which is exciting; learning is one of my favorite parts of teaching.
There are two particularly striking elements of Lone Survivor for me: (1) situations that speak to interpretation and larger meaning and (2) aesthetic choices that speak to perspective.
When two people see a film, it’s never the same film because of the experiences and perspectives they bring into the viewing, which I always think of as the reading of the film text. As I contrast the responses that my friend David and I had to Lone Survivor, I want to be sure to say first that I think we are both “right.”
Most significant for him is the story of a man, Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), who successfully navigates the maturation process. Quoting from an email exchange, “The movie is best viewed from the point of view of the lone survivor. Most war films are about good triumphing over evil. This is a movie about maturing and the stages of self-mastery.”
The stages Luttrell must pass through to advance are honing his skills, waiting until a situation arises to put his skills to the test, and the test itself, which begins in this film with an ethical dilemma arising on the mountainside when the Navy Seals encounter three goat herders, who can blow their cover and compromise the operation. (Since this is shown in the preview trailer, it doesn’t seem like much of a spoiler!) Because Luttrell passes through the stages successfully, he emerges an honorable and mature man.
While I find this reading of the film compelling and persuasive, there is another way of thinking about it that resonates more immediately with me, and it is contextual.
In the scene mentioned above, Luttrell must make an ethical decision to follow the rules of engagement and release the goat herders or to break the rules to save the mission and kill them. As indicated in the preview trailer, the rules of engagement are followed.
Later on, Luttrell must make another decision about whether or not to trust an Afghan who offers him a helping hand. I won’t reveal the details of the plot following, but a theme emerges that speaks to my way of seeing the film as a collective social space with competing factions, complex relationships, and political realities that cut much deeper and more authentically than the short packages presented on the evening news.
While Lone Survivor does celebrate the Navy Seals who suffer and die for their mission, it also complicates the conventional war narrative – a story of “us” and “them” – to demonstrate that some choices about how to live while serving humanity rise above contemporary conflicts.
I have also given a lot of thought to perspective and aesthetics. For me, I tend to prefer a more “realistic” perspective and watched the story unfold from an “objective” point of view without directly identifying with individual characters in this particular film. That being the case, the use of slow motion during some gunfight sequences, a “subjective” technique, took me out of the narrative from time to time.
Clearly mine is a minority opinion on this matter.
David notes that the slow motion is effective for him because life slows down for everyone who has lived through a life or death in situation that they are prepared to face. Discussing the same technique in class, one of my students said that she had read the book upon which the film is based, and that the visualization in the film matched accounts she read.
Several of my students had seen the film before I did and encouraged me to check it out. One student told me that both of her parents were in the military, loved the film because of its realism, and that her mother cried three times when she saw it.
Another student in a different class told me that it made him cry. Curious, I asked him what part of the film elicited this response, and he said the end of the film where Berg presents images of each of the men who died on this operation with their names, biographical information, and stills and clips that show them interacting with their loved ones.
I was struck by this revelation because in the end it was the most realistic portion of the film, strictly speaking, that made him identify with characters in a way he could not deny.
Movies, meaning, and magic…sometimes it all comes together. While this is not one of my personal favorite war films (Platoon still holds the top spot), it is definitely worth seeing and worth discussing with people who can teach you something.