Schlock and Awe: The Military Pain Porn of ‘Lone Survivor’

Peter Berg’s latest movie doesn't just glorify war—it fetishizes it

Schlock and Awe: The Military Pain Porn of ‘Lone Survivor’ Schlock and Awe: The Military Pain Porn of ‘Lone Survivor’

Uncategorized January 14, 2014 0

“Such vivid reds,” says Danny Dietz—played by Emile Hirsch—while staring at the ruined nubs that were once his fingers. His eyes are crazed and... Schlock and Awe: The Military Pain Porn of ‘Lone Survivor’

“Such vivid reds,” says Danny Dietz—played by Emile Hirsch—while staring at the ruined nubs that were once his fingers. His eyes are crazed and his wounds severe.

The audience knows that he will die. They knew when they bought their tickets to the show. His death, when it comes, is rendered with distaste. Cameras bloom. Music swells. Motion slows. A real tragedy is lost in a narrative mess of nasty violence and cynical box office cash grabbery.

This is Lone Survivor, Hollywood’s latest attempt to make narrative sense of the war in Afghanistan. It’s directed by Peter Berg, whose previous ventures include Enrique Iglesias music videos and that extended toy commercial for a Hasbro board game, Battleship.

Lone Survivor tells the story of 2005’s doomed Operation Red Wings, a joint U.S. Army and Navy mission tasked with disrupting Taliban activity in Kunar province, Afghanistan. At the beginning of the operation, a team of four Navy SEALs were dispatched to perform surveillance and reconnaissance on the Taliban commander Ahmad Shah.

The SEAL team ran afoul of the Taliban and only one man—Marcus Luttrell—survived.

After his recovery, Luttrell teamed with ghostwriter Patrick Robinson to craft a memoir of his time in the mountains. The resulting book was a smash hit. A movie was inevitable.

The results are poor. Berg—as he often does—mistakes style for substance, misses the point of the story he’s telling and fetishizes violence, delivering an action-packed two-hour movie that misunderstands dramatic irony so badly it becomes torture porn.

After the perfunctory amount of character development—these were real men, after all—the audience is treated to an hour of combat. It’s taut, well-shot and gruesome. Jets of dark red blood fly from the throats of the attacking Taliban. The heroes take bullet after bullet, twice fall down the mountain, endure scrapes, cuts and dodge rocket-propelled grenades. All while killing dozens of their pursuers.

The action sequences are rendered less powerful by the movie’s reliance on tasteless slow-motion death sequences and forced melodrama. One particularly awful scene shows the four SEALs jumping from the edge of a cliff while the world explodes behind them, invoking cheesy 1980s network TV action shows.

One SEAL—Matthew Axelson, played by Ben Foster—leans against a tree after having emptied his pistol into the approaching enemy hordes. His lungs are punctured and the audience listens to him wheeze his last. The camera holds on his face as ruined breaths filling our ears. Bullets fire into the tree. One shot. Two shots. Three. The tree is painted with his blood.

There is a powerful story buried in all this hopeless violence. It’s present in Luttrell and Robinson’s book. A story about camaraderie and brotherhood born on the field of battle. The theme is paid lip service here, but Berg doesn’t know how to bring it out.

I’m not surprised. This is the same director who took H.G. Bissinger’s critique of Texas high-school football culture Friday Night Lights and turned it into a celluloid love letter to the very culture the original work was meant to question.

At the end of Berg’s Battleship, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s anti-war anthem “Fortunate Son nonsensically blared over the credits of a very pro-military film. On a similar note, at the end of Lone Survivor the audience is treated to a slow and pained cover of David Bowie’s Heroes over images of the 19 soldiers who died during Operation Red Wings.

The quotation marks around the song title are present in the liner notes for the album of the same name. It’s “‘Heroes,’” not “Heroes.” It’s about as close to adding a question mark as one can do without just putting one after the song title.

I doubt Berg is calling into question the heroism of the soldiers who suffered and died on that mountain. He’s just bad at picking up subtext. The song sounded cool, that’s it. It affects patriotic emotions while the audience sits in the dark, being told what to feel by the cinematic equivalent of a hyperactive child torturing action figures because he likes the way the plastic looks when it melts.

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