The hell experienced by the four U.S. Navy Seals in Lone Survivor is a place some of us have been before, at least in the movies or in dreams. It's a place where we're pinned down, under attack, and abandoned by both hope and help. No one hears our screams, feels our pain or sees just how alone and terrified we are. Where movies and dreams converge is in the waking: The hero survives to tell the tale or – in the true-life case of Marcus Luttrell – write the book that inspires the movie. The dreamer wakes up shaken but alive, and the moviegoer simply goes home.
In generic terms Lone Survivor is a war movie, but pull the focus back a little and it becomes something else. It fits neatly into something else currently going on in American movies, something that transcends genre so conspicuously that it almost creates a new one: the spectacle of survival. If one theme in American movies has dominated all others over the past year, it's the idea of making it alone in the universe. Think of Gravity, The Counselor, This is the End, Man of Steel, Inside Llewyn Davis, All is Lost, Nebraska, Oldboy, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Captain Phillips, Oblivion, 12 Years a Slave.
With a frequency that leapfrogs genres, adopts multiple dramatic tones and betrays a deep-seated, pop cultural preoccupation, American movies have concluded that our defining spiritual circumstance these days is being stranded. Whether we're talking about an orphaned extraterrestrial superhero, a homeless East Village folksinger, an aging alcoholic in search of a phantom lottery bonanza, a lawyer seeking a big score, a free black man shackled by slavery, or one of several characters dropped alone in the past year on a post-apocalyptic planet, the operative ambition here is survival. The presumption is that extreme solitude is a condition that we all fear, and our movies do us the traditional, time-tested favour of providing a vicarious catharsis for those fears in fiction.
But this isn't to be confused with rugged individualism, which is a form of mythic isolation that ultimately connects with a larger community in the form of heroic leadership. The new loners are heroic only unto themselves, and only because they live through it. The Seals in Lone Survivor aren't really connected to anything except each other. Their war has no apparent cause, and their goal is to make it through the valley of death in one piece.
Yet Lone Survivor is engaged with more than one war. It immerses itself so deeply in what was called Operation Red Wings that any larger questions – about, say, the purpose and wisdom of the mission, the politics of American boots on Afghan ground and the riddle of who is fighting for what – are utterly and understandably lost in the hail of bullets, spurts of blood, crunching of bones and minute-by-minute struggle to stay alive.
But the movie is also at war with itself. While it struggles, especially in its first and third acts, to attribute a time-worn form of war-movie heroism to these young men – they're dutiful, playful, plain-spoken, selfless – it has a second act that is as traumatically authentic and punishingly convincing as any combat movie footage since Steven Spielberg restaged the Normandy beach landing in Saving Private Ryan.
Lone Survivor has war-movie tropes to spare: the down-home band of bros with pictures of wives and kids, the no-nonsense speeches about beating death even as the blood seeps out, the sacrificial act of suicidal selflessness. Here, the idea is that every war is really just another geopolitical variation on the eternally expanding American frontier, and history is just one big western.
In an overwhelming number of Hollywood-made popcorn movies this past year, a void is reached and the best and only hope is to make it out with a beating pulse. The sense of any higher or collective purpose recedes into the abstract, and the definition of heroism is boiled down to one absolute essential: All you have to do is live.