Every era gets the war films it needs and right now is a weird time for on-screen combat. We've exited the decade of anguished Iraq War films, the ones made during the Bush administration that presented themselves as a collective scream into the void. And now, with offerings as quality-diverse as Zero Dark Thirty and Act Of Valor, the mood has changed. In the multiplex, at least, there's almost a feeling of "Yeah, we sorta won that one."
Sorta. Gone, also, is the tone-deaf Rambo and Chuck Norris revisionism of the 1980s, a decade devoted to crushing movie-Vietnam into a Spuds Mackenzie-shaped victory trophy made of human ears. It's after Platoon now. It's after Full Metal Jacket. Boneheaded jingoism doesn't work. Only film and/or war history enthusiasts are eager to hear Cary Grant say crazy stuff like, "The Japs don't understand the love we have for our women" in a film like 1943's Destination Tokyo. But if we're wary of movies that champion war, we still like a war movie, and we like them best when goodness triumphs (it's also after Saving Private Ryan). So we would prefer, please, to select from the buffet. Reverence for the troops is the meat and the sides should include at least a modicum of understanding that the enemy is also human. War can be hell. It can even be a mistake. But it exists and it must be fought and can the guy we like stay alive at the end, his mental health intact?
Enter Lone Survivor. A bestselling memoir of capture and mass death from Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, it's been delivered to the screen through director Peter Berg's testosterone filter, turned into a prime example of where we are now in movie-war.
While on a reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan, in the service of taking out a Taliban leader, Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and his team stumble across unarmed goatherders. One of them is a child. And one of them has a walkie talkie. To kill them violates the rules of engagement. To let them go will mean certain attack and casualties. No good choices to be had. It's kill or be killed.
What happens next is in the title: battle sequences as brutal and agonizing as anything in Private Ryan, heart-stopping injury montage that will make you wonder how the stuntmen survived that day on set, mounting suspense even though the plot's mass slaughter is a matter of public record. This is on Berg, whose skill at crafting the man's-man movie naturally includes unabashed battle-lust and a violence junkie's approach to turning action sequences into hammering death operas. In a war picture you must kill thine enemy.
The bulk of the movie becomes a document (it feels weird to call it "entertainment," even as it strives to be just that) of extended agony for Americans (Afghans die quickly and cleanly) and against-the-odds survival for Luttrell, meticulously shot and sound-designed for maximum crunch. And it knows whose side it's on from the beginning. It is Team America, make no mistake. But it's also surprising, as it details the unexpected courage and bravery of Afghan villagers who intervened on Luttrell's behalf against the Taliban. So even with its compartmentalized suffering and refusal to indulge in shades of gray, it also refuses to flinch from the complications involved when it comes to Hollywood representation of the most horrible thing humankind does to itself.
Which leads back to the point of a film like this, which is at least two-fold: to frame the conversation Hollywood will keep having about wars waged by the U.S. and to memorialize the real-life dead -- we see their photos over the closing credits -- regardless of how or why it happened. Lone Survivor's lasting value won't be as inspiration. It doesn't know who won or lost or why. It's value will be as an example of a film trying to walk the line between propganda and humanism, wondering where it should step next.