Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor begins and ends with footage and photos of actual American troops. The first set of images depicts would-be soldiers going through the boot camp process with a voiceover underscoring the brotherly camaraderie that spawns out of this reprogramming period. Experiencing the brutality of nature and stifling conditions, these initial images communicate, bluntly, that a civilian’s human capacities are never truly realized until they experience armed combat. The final set of images, with the gory details of a failed mission in Afghanistan now recreated by the likes of Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, and Emilie Hirsch, sees the true-to-life troops of that mission in photographs. These images, with soldiers dressed in military garb and in civilian clothes, are alternatively stripped of voiceover but rather mixed with a cover of David Bowie’s Heroes. What can we perceive from this bookended conclusion? Not much, as Lone Survivor’s opening and closing acts hold together a narrative that ultimately exploits the actions of soldiers as fodder for hyper violence rather than making any genuine or interesting inquiries on the social or political landscape that promotes the act of killing itself.
A SEALS team finds itself in a precarious position when its mission is compromised by civilian interaction. Scouting a Taliban leader - his name proving of little importance as Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) denotes him to his team as simply “the bad guy” - the quartet of Navy SEALS deliberate on what to do. The Afghani civilians, composed of an old man and two boys, are bound during the deliberation. Killing the three may be against protocol but it does jeopardize the quartet’s positioning and makes traveling back to base increasingly dangerous. After a quick assessment, the SEALS opt to let the civilians live, with their subsequent release prompting a swift response from local Taliban outfits. What follows is a series of brutally violent interactions between the four SEALS members and a seemingly infinite number of Middle Eastern “bad guys”, as Peter Berg and crew attempt to realize war and its violence as a sort of necessary passage of American camaraderie. With an emphasis on sacrifice and a purposeful attempt to convey its band of brothers as superhuman purveyors of war, Berg’s imagery is drenched within a context of hypermasculine Americanisms. This effectively halts any making sense of the violence on screen by making its characters cogs to a grand structure - SEALS are the representative vanguards of America while Middle-Easterners are broadly painted, either worthy American salvation or best left to deliberate with the firing end of a rifle.
There’s a worthy story to be told in Lone Survivor, but there’s simply no making sense of the visual and narrative context of Berg’s work. The opening and closing credits are particularly anomalous to the hyper violence of the middle portion of the picture’s intent. Are we asked to revere the sacrifices of the soldiers on display? Bemoan the acts of violence perpetrated by the “aggressor”? If either is the case, then Berg provides no social or political context in which to make any sort of judgment. Instead we’re offered a series of violent acts that ultimately celebrate excess grotesqueness.