“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”
This astonishing quotation comes from an essay by American journalist H. L. Mencken. Writing in 1919 about a certain rage perceived in new writing from Ezra Pound, Mencken at first expresses tongue in cheek sympathy with Pound's anger—“the stupidity he combats is actually almost unbearable”—before dismissing it as detrimental to the writer’s poetry.
Put into the mouth of John Malkovich’s CIA honcho James Bishop in Peter Berg’s latest film Mile 22, however, this incendiary quotation becomes much more ambiguous—particularly since there is no citation given, appearing as it does to be just another whimsical thought spoken out loud by this eccentric character. Bishop, as head of a special black ops division, is deadly serious and clearly sympathetic towards the sentiment. Whether the film itself is remains another story, and a canny route into understanding the contradictions and ambiguities that define Berg's work as a director.
Riddled with a comically intense amount of simplistic and fascistic statements such as this, and ending with a plot twist that asks us to reconsider who the good guys are, Mile 22 is much harder to pin down as pro-American, right wing propaganda than Berg’s detractors would have us believe. But it is—as with all of Berg’s movies—also worth wondering who exactly its fans might be. Operating in a uniformly commercial context and register, Berg has always worn his influences on his sleeve—Michael Mann being the most apparent, and Michael Bay a sort of competitor—striving to deliver violent and thrilling action entertainment to the multiplex. And at first glance, his films appeal to the American/Republican heartland, particularly with their fetishism for home, the family, and instruments of the military industrial complex. Look a little closer, however, and interesting cracks and inconsistencies begin to appear.
Berg's fourth collaboration with Mark Wahlberg, Mile 22 is the first of the director's films in a while not to be based on real-life events, though the CIA Ground Branch division which the film focuses on does exist. Even in a film intended as a departure from real-life tragedy and a foray into more genre-based fun, Berg seems unable to extricate himself from a certain degree of realism—an anchor into reality which makes his work weightier in places you would not necessarily expect.
On paper, his directorial debut Very Bad Things (1998) sounds like a horrendous gender-swapped precursor to Rough Night (2017): a group of lifelong friends accidentally kill a prostitute during a bachelor party and decide to dispose of the body. Marketed as a broad comedy at the time—and apparently perceived as one by a majority of critics—the film is in fact anything but. True, moments of Tarantino-esque black humor do momentarily lift Very Bad Things out of the depths of sorrow and torment, but the bulk of the film’s runtime follows decent men driven crazy by guilt, rather than mad Patrick Bateman prototypes engaged in calculated murder. This may not be a Sundance-feted psychological thriller, but regardless of Berg’s intentions, the film comes much too close to reality to be at all amusing or broad, its specificity and psychological realism anchoring us into an uncomfortable and bleak reality being lived by relatable characters.
Mile 22 suffers from a similar issue, where Berg’s realist visual style and generally edgy approach make it hard to understand just on what level we are supposed to appreciate the film. Frenzied moments when agent Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan) asks Iko Uwais’ Li Noor “Do you think that because I’m a woman, I’m less capable of extreme violence?”, or when Mark Wahlberg’s James Silva launches onto yet another tedious monologue, are difficult to read as anything but comedy. Berg’s explanation in interview that Silva’s characterization was inspired by none other than Steve Bannon—“someone who has developed his own somewhat radicalized thought process, who’s been running ground operations for maybe longer than he should have”—would seem a strong argument to support accusations of jingoism on the film’s part, were it not for Silva being unbearable throughout and ultimately losing everything. With that in mind, perhaps the film’s extremely bleak twist is a sort of return to black comedy for Berg—although this time, the joke is on Bannon and his cohorts. The film suggests, in unambiguous terms, that their “somewhat jaded way of looking at conflict resolution and world politics” makes them prone to failures of the imagination.
Berg is at his best when evolving in a register that lets his talent for realism blossom and carry his work. After the rather commonplace buddy action comedy The Rundown (2003)—which nevertheless demonstrated his knack for creating exciting and spatially coherent action set-pieces—the actor-turned-director honed his talent for conveying vivid slices of life in the film Friday Night Lights (2004). Although rather conventional in itself, the film is more valuable when seen as a necessary step towards and training ground for the TV show of the same name (2006 – 2011), created by Berg, and which remains hiss crowning achievement. Like all of his best work, the film and series are particularly interested in showing people working hard and being good at what they do. Indeed, as confusing or difficult as his politics might be, Berg himself cannot be described as a lazy director. On every project he embarks on, he tries something new, and he remains extremely prolific to this day whatever the level of budget or genre in which he is operating.
Friday Night Lights the show is where Berg perfected his visual style and sensibility: fast cuts and mobile cameras in close-ups, capturing American everyday life in the raw and typically set to the dreamy guitar chords of Explosions in the Sky. This is also Berg’s first look at the contradictions of patriotism, seen through the prism of American football as both a metaphorical and literal place of battle. The selflessness and work ethic of Kyle Chandler’s Coach Taylor, the delicate balance between American individualism and allegiance to the community, the necessary intermingling of extreme self-seriousness and irreverence—all these concerns are to be found in Berg’s geopolitical thrillers, but they remain the most fully realized here. The need to accept defeat, to believe in oneself, to work with others: Friday Night Lights raises these concerns to fever pitch intensity and to a frankly hysterical degree, but it remains effective precisely because of Berg’s canny fusion of the principles of melodrama with social realism and observational-style filmmaking.
In fact, many might wish for Berg to return to the relatively small scale of Friday Night Lights, where the conflicts and concerns of the small Texas town were of a personal dimension, rather than matters of international security. Berg’s empathetic style, for instance, made us care far more about Coach Taylor leaving to teach in a different school than it did about Kyle Chandler’s character exploding in the first ten minutes of the director’s next film, The Kingdom (2007).
Friday Night Lights relied on what has been Berg’s greatest strength so far, and something which has been essential in his best films: his ability to make the out-of-fashion, patriarchal concept of the nuclear family unit desirable as a place of unconditional love and support. Put simply, we all wanted Eric Taylor to be our dad. No matter how bad things might have got, the Taylors always had each other. Most of the other characters in the show never even knew that this sort of support existed, and in that gap of affection lay the show’s heartbreaking power. The Kingdom reaches for similar emotional heights by having Coach Taylor/Kyle Chandler die within the first few minutes and the characters grieve him throughout. But the film fails to make this emotional arc fit properly with the larger problems of international security that the explosion which killed their friend also represents.
This hyper-emotionality, as well as key political themes that would become synonymous with Berg’s style in later films—most of all, people putting themselves in the line of fire to protect the USA—are already present, but the film’s weak and disorganized storyline does not tie them up together neatly enough, the director seeming to lurch from moment to moment and theme to theme without his characteristic discipline. As Mile 22 also demonstrates, it seems Berg’s themes and ideas need to be incorporated into a really efficient structure in order to have them all gel with each other. The complex geopolitical implications of Mile 22, involving Russian spies and conflicting diplomatic interests,jar with its more straightforwardly entertaining and unrealistic action-movie aesthetic, and particularly with the martial arts prowess of The Raid’s Iko Uwais, who deserves a more fantastical space in which to operate. Hysterical violence makes more sense in the context of Steve Bannon-esque paranoia, but even with that in mind, the mix feels odd and misjudged.
Berg has attempted twice to make films which, though they evolved in a military context, could be more easily described as popcorn action movies. Hancock (2008) is unconventional as a superhero movie, but it clearly is one. Will Smith plays the titular hero, whose alcoholism and general lack of interest lead him to cause unnecessary harm and destruction every time he attempts to save someone. A year before Watchmen (2009)—which addressed the danger superheroes present to society and mortal humans around them—and five before Man of Steel (2013) would generate a popular debate around collateral victims in superhero movies, Berg showed that with great power comes great destruction.
As with Very Bad Things, the director took the central conceit of the film to its logical conclusion. This sense of inexorable movement, of reality marching on regardless of the hopes and fears of characters, is something Berg explores in much of his work, and which is apparent even in this more fantastical world of big budget action comedy.
In Mile 22, the concern is clearest in an early, frantic scene where a government official points at a list of tragedies (Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the London Subway attack, et cetera) while explaining: “Your job is not to predict tomorrow based on yesterday. That’s what academics do. Your job is to prevent the end of tomorrow, by using your brains and your imagination.” This hyped-up nonsense, the use of the theory of the unknown knowns as justification for action, the US desperation to find solutions outside of logic when logic isn’t helping its plans, are all symptomatic of a certain madness that existed in American foreign policy well before Bannon became famous as Trump’s right hand, but which he perfectly embodies today. Wahlberg’s Silva—whose suspected mental illness is cause for much speculation amongst his colleagues—himself mentions unknown knowns at the end of the film, in an attempt to explain his team’s failure to see what was coming: “The definition of an unknown known is something that exists but which we don’t know, something we can’t even imagine.” It is not surprising to learn in an interview that Peter Berg has already seen American Dharma, Errol Morris’ documentary about Bannon which will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
It is rather unclear in Mile 22 whether Berg is endorsing Silva, his rage and his unorthodox methods, but the final twist makes it hard to imagine that he does so unconditionally. A similar final note in The Kingdom, drawing parallels between terrorists and American military forces, throws our allegiances into question. Such ambiguity is at odds with Berg’s most straightforwardly—and most simplistically—gung-ho film, Battleship (2012), a kids’ action movie set to become a Hasbro franchise like the Transformers series until it bombed at the box office. After sending a friendly message into outer space, planet Earth is visited by aliens attempting to conquer the planet. Despite a series of incredibly misjudged decisions, Taylor Kitsch eventually manages to kill all the aliens—but not without the help of burly veterans, the only people capable of navigating an old battleship that gives the film its title.
Battleship explores a simple definition of patriotism that Berg would elaborate on and problematize in his later projects. Based on a real tragedy, his next film Lone Survivor (2013) follows a United States Navy SEALs unit sent to capture a Taliban leader responsible for killing several US Marines and civilians. A series of mistakes from higher authority leads to them being stranded and left to fend for themselves in highly hostile territory; after a long struggle, all men but one are brutally murdered. They are all hailed as heroes in the film’s final montage of pictures of the real-life soldiers. And yet, as honorably as they fought their enemies, it seems hypocritical for the US Navy to call them heroes when the whole mission was so poorly judged, a catastrophe that could have been prevented.
Regardless of this political position, the film is an important milestone for Berg, marking his first of three re-enactment films. Like all such movies, Berg’s is a dramatization of real events and thus partly stylized, but his ability to make these real-life events viscerally felt undermines the idea that re-enactments inherently take us away from reality, into a more polished and ‘Hollywood’ version of events. A news report about Operation Red Wings would feel more bland and sanitizing than Berg’s vivid dramatization. A stunning forty minute action set piece on a mountain at the center of Lone Survivor is probably his crowning technical achievement, moving as it does with breathless and brutal energy and grounding us in the action unlike any other recent combat film.
Also a re-enactment of real-life events, Deepwater Horizon (2016) is Berg’s finest film to date precisely because it is free of the muddled and complex political considerations that weigh down Lone Survivor and his other combat films. This time, there is an unambiguous bad guy, and we all hate it: namely, capitalist greed. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was entirely the fault of oil and gas company BP, too greedy to take the right measures of precaution to prevent a disaster—that accident was not caused by a failure of the imagination. The film retraces the events of the day which led to eleven deaths and to the largest accidental marine oil spill in the world.
Like Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon has Mark Wahlberg as our anchor into the story, but the film’s true strength lies in showing his colleagues on the oil rig simply doing their job: as in the football matches of Friday Night Lights, and later on in Berg’s next film, Patriots Day (2016), these are ego-less, dedicated, no-bullshit people presented naturalistically and in a straightforwardly observational film style. Wahlberg’s more classical hero in DeepwaterHorizon—a cocky everyman who talks too much, but who is redeemed by his unusual bravery when he goes back into the furnace to save others and jumps from the oil rig into the water on fire—is, paradoxically, the least interesting aspect of the film, returning it to more conventional territory. But the technical display and spatial coherence of a movie set almost entirely in the passage ways and complex geography of a massive rig, remains jaw-dropping and unique, and the almost Altman-esque scale of the cast is impressive.
Berg seemed to have understood the limits of Wahlberg-as-hero in Patriots Day (2016), where the actor stands more in the background of the action. As the film follows the manhunt for brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, the urgency of the action leaves little time for any emotions other than stress and fear, thus avoiding the melancholy that felt out of place in The Kingdom. It also means that the many government officials working together can only communicate in the most succinct, efficient manner—there is simply, thankfully no time for Wahlberg to wax lyrical.
Berg’s decision to now have the actor play the lead in Mile 22 as a verbose agent who takes his work extremely personally seems like a clear attempt to try something new. This is also the first time Berg has his main characters stray from the ‘no man left behind’ motto that formed the moral basis of all his films before. This time, the mission comes first. However, the combination of these two elements makes for an unpleasant, relentlessly harsh movie.
Though the film’s finale condemns the CIA task forces basic disregard for human life and the far-fetched justifications for its cruelty, it fails to restore the gravity of death that Berg’s best films consistently manage to convey. For all his talent at directing action, what makes Berg’s filmmaking stand out from that of other action directors is its anchor in reality: his best work is emotionally coherent and viscerally felt. Here’s hoping his next film will return to that territory that is so familiar to him, but which so many fear to tread.