Lone Survivor is an excellent war movie: intense and fast-paced, if a bit too graphically violent for my tastes. But who am I to complain? War is hell, and a war movie that aims for authenticity probably ought to show a bit of hell, even if it makes us squirm.
Having said all that, I’m going lodge a minor criticism–and you may want to stop reading here if you haven’t seen the film and want to avoid a small spoiler.
The movie’s title, of course, is its own kind of spoiler. If a story about four SEALs on a special-ops mission in Afghanistan is called Lone Survivor, I have a rough idea of what’s going to happen to three of them. But that’s not what disappointed me. The disappointment comes from the almost complete lack of triumph. The story is about an operation that suffers a random setback (goat herders literally stumble upon the American team), and then goes horrendously wrong. Three guys die in awful ways and a fourth barely survives. His survival is a kind of triumph, but only amid a backdrop of failure. If the film asks us to think about just one thing, it’s this: What the heck are we doing over there?
I took my 16-year-old son to the theater. Our conversations occasionally turn to what he wants to do when he grows up, and I had thought that on the drive home, we might wind up discussing enlistment, ROTC, etc.–not necessarily the need to do any of these things, but more about how they work. You know: food for thought, material for a teenaged boy to chew on. Some war movies, after all, make us feel patriotic, and good about what soldiers do, even as we recognize the incredible sacrifices they may make. After Lone Survivor, however, there was no such talk. It’s hard to imagine anybody watching this movie and heading straight to a recruitment center. More likely, they think: Wow, I’m never going to do that.
As I said, this is a minor criticism. A good war movie has no obligation to make us feel patriotic, and a film that makes us feel jingoistic is not art but propaganda. In the end, however, I think I prefer the tenor of a movie like Captain Phillips, which tells us, however implicitly, that American military power is mostly a force for good in the modern world.