On the one hand we have stories about wars and on the other hand we have stories about battles. We have our Farewell to Arms, where the mood travels from optimism to cynicism as the war grinds on and the horrors pile up, and then we have our For Whom The Bell Tolls, where the story is centered around achieving one specific goal. Movies that are aiming for drama tend to use the war model since it allows for greater character growth, and more action oriented stories using the battle model since it allows for more decisive endings.
Lone Survivor is definitely an action story. The first half hour of the movie shows the soldiers at their home base being briefed on one specific mission and then it shows the the soldiers moving into the mountainous terrain where they will have to fight. After that’s out of the way, the rest of the movie is nearly non-stop battling. This movie has real tunnel vision – it more or less takes place over three days and doesn’t ever ask any questions about why the soldiers are there, or about the broader implications of war. It just sets up the situation, then watches the dominoes as they methodically fall.
Which honestly was a relief. I understand the moral implications of glamorizing ethically questionable military engagements, and I understand that having soldiers do well in specific fights doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve done a good job of waging the war. But there have been so few watchable movies about George W’s wars that didn’t tip into preaching that it was kind of refreshing to see a movie that was more practically minded, focusing more on how we fight than why we fight.
The specifics of how wars are waged now are so fascinating that Lone Survivor would have been interesting if it had just illustrated the sort of logistical problems the military solves on a daily basis. But on top of being an interesting slice of life movie it’s also a great action movie, tense with great stunts. I hope that they didn’t really just toss stuntmen off the side of a mountain because that’s an insane thing to do to a human being, but those shots of bodies ping-ponging off of boulders were some of the most realistic looking stunts I can remember seeing. That level of believability really grounds the movie even when the number of Taliban fighterss killed by the four American starts to tip into 80’s “Schwarzenegger just killed the entire Colombian narco-army by himself” overkill.
There really should be more action movies like this which don’t go for the spectacle a huge conflict allows but instead focuses on a few characters in one dangerous situation. There’s a lot less chaos to try to make sense of, and the stakes seem a lot realer. Plus who doesn’t love a movie with a decisive non-ambivalent ending?