Mark Wahlberg's new movie is creating political controversy as it conquers the US box office, writes Tim Robey.
Blood. Broken bones. Bullets hailing all around. That's just the critical debate over Lone Survivor, the heart-pumping account of a disastrous Navy Seals mission on an Afghan mountaintop in 2005. Fashioned as an endurance tale with Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor of a skirmish with the Taliban, it has shattered expectations in the US, making US$93.9 million (NZ$115 million) just two weeks after wide release.
Hollywood films about the US military often lead to hyperbolised reviews on either side of the political spectrum, but this particular firefight has gone ballistic.
"A jingoistic snuff film," the LA Weekly critic Amy Nicholson wrote in horror, arguing the film valorised death in disturbing, near-pornographic ways. In response, talk-radio pundit Glenn Beck called Nicholson a "vile, repugnant and ignorant liar", and offered to fly her to his studio to see if she "had the balls" to read her review to Luttrell's face.
Lone Survivor, directed by Peter Berg, is based on Luttrell's 2007 book about Operation Red Wings, an attempt to take out a key Taliban leader hat backfired horribly when four Seals were ambushed. The gung-ho tone of Berg's film wasn't hard to predict. There was a strong ingredient of hoo-rah in his 2007 Saudi-set action film The Kingdom, which impressed Luttrell and led to this collaboration. Universal wouldn't give Berg Lone Survivor until he'd made Battleship (2012) - a film so deafeningly in love with military hardware it makes Top Gun look like Bo Peep.
But what took industry analysts by surprise was the red state/blue state divide that's resulted. Lone Survivor has been pitted against Martin Scorsese's hedonistic orgy of excess, The Wolf Of Wall Street. Both are contenders for the most controversial US film of the year; like rival presidential candidates, they've carved their own swathes of America. Lone Survivor's most successful territories have been in the heartland - Texas, Utah, Colorado, Georgia, Nevada, and Virginia, and in military towns such as San Diego. Scorsese's film has dominated the liberal east and west, and Canada.
Nicholson argued - perhaps intemperately - that the film preached "brown people bad, American people good". "We're meant to cheer," she went on, "not that anyone in my theatre did. But there will be audiences who do, and I'm not sure I'm comfortable with what they're cheering for. This is death. Look at death."
She wasn't the only critic to come under fire. In the Atlantic, the Toronto-based writer Calum Marsh began by looking at the boot-camp montage that opens this film. "Assembled like a high-gloss music video and slathered in Explosions in the Sky's soaring post-rock, it plays out like an advertisement for the Marine Corps - an affectionate endorsement from Hollywood of the Seals' peerless brawn."
Fox News ran a segment on Marsh's review in which the mother of one of the felled Seals, Donna Axelson, took issue. Marsh wasn't asked for comment, and didn't know his piece had been featured until his Twitter feed went nuts. "Woke up to a grand total of 63 angry tweets from indignant Fox News fans," he tweeted, "approximately two of which featured no spelling mistakes."
America's culture wars have reached the state where any film purporting to show military engagement becomes another flashpoint. Cogent, nuanced engagement with the actual film-making can easily get lost in the ruckus. It happened with Zero Dark Thirty (2012), accused of end-justifying-the-means jingoism and endorsing torture. It happened with Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down (2002), whose gung-ho depiction of the Battle of Mogadishu makes it a model of sorts for Lone Survivor - both films feature Eric Bana (and both crises led to the deaths of exactly 19 US servicemen).
Lone Survivor was made in close consultation with families of the US victims, and with Luttrell's input. It tries to dodge accusations of racism, such as Nicholson's, by dramatising the Seals' quandary - when discovered by goat herders, should they kill them or let them go? Their decision, unfortunately, is both morally right and ruinous for their mission.
Luttrell has defended the film while sensibly refusing to be drawn into the Left versus Right debate. But his position is made clear in his book: "As a Navy Seal," he writes, "I am sworn to defend my country and carry out the wishes of my commander in chief ... Republican or Democrat."
What: Lone Survivor
When: Opens at cinemas February 27