2018 Film Essays

Blowback: Peter Berg’s ‘Mile 22’

*SPOILERS*

Since the release of Lone Survivor in 2013, the director-star team of Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg have spent the intervening years chronicling living history. Lone Survivor told the story of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg), who was the only man to return from a particularly harrowing mission in the Afghanistan mountains. The pair followed up in 2016 with Deepwater Horizon, a survival drama about the explosion at the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that claimed the lives of 11 workers and leaked untold gallons of crude into the ocean. Their third feature together, Patriots Day, also in 2016, dramatized the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent hunt for the perpetrators.

Their latest, Mile 22, is not a ripped-from-the-headlines pseudo-document of recent events, as the others purport to be. Instead, it is a 93-minute potboiler seemingly in debt to Clint Eastwood’s 1977 film The Gauntlet gone international. The plot is simple enough — a clutch of deadly nuclear material has gone missing, and U.S. government covert operative Jimmy Silva (Wahlberg) and his team must escort a dubious source, Li Noor (Iko Uwais), to a plane that will take him to the U.S. and relative safety. In exchange, Li will give them the location of the cesium. The titular distance refers to the geographical space between the U.S. embassy and the plane, which Silva and his team must navigate while fending off the local government’s goon squad.

Unlike the three historically-minded dramas that preceded it, Mile 22 is Berg’s attempt at a no holds-barred action flick. There are shootouts, close-quarters hand-to-hand combat and intense gore. And yet, the film is concerned with the same contemporary political and social dynamics that shaped Berg’s other collaborations with Wahlberg. While the other films each seek to honor the heroic actions of the men in those dramatic and even catastrophic situations, Mile 22 dares to depict characters who are anything but heroic. It engages with modern geo-political conflict through its representation of Russian hacking as a driving motivator of the plot. Its images and editing continually offer both the immediate and mediated experience of violence. In taking these approaches, it calls into question the validity of violent intervention as a tool for securing international outcomes.

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From a visual standpoint, Berg’s style of shooting is chaotic. In his “recent history” films, that scattershot cinematography and staccato editing reaches for vérité, especially in Deepwater Horizon, when the images and cutting simulate the disorientation the workers experience as the rig burns. In Mile 22, those stylistic choices fuel the action sequences. In one, Li is ambushed in the embassy’s infirmary by assassins posing as doctors. He fights them off using bedpans, gurneys and anything else he can find, while Berg cuts on physical impact as Li’s fists, feet and found objects land blows on his would-be killers. The frenzied pace extends into the streets, as Silva and his team encounter massive resistance on busy highways from cadres of anonymous attackers all armed with assault weapons. Much of the movie’s second act plays like the bank robbery gun battle from Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), but shot through with supercharged adrenaline. In contrast to Mann, Berg sacrifices tension, but infuses these sequences with mania that occasionally lapses into confusion of relational geography.

Fast cutting and chaotic, shaky camerawork is hardly an innovative approach to an action film at this point — they are basically first principles, an easy choice for filmmakers trying to generate escalation through stylistic smoke and mirrors. Berg splits the difference in his employment of narratively motivated images from an exterior point of view. If much of the action is from Silva’s perspective inside the chaos, then Berg’s frequent reliance on satellite, drone and surveillance footage offers a more objective, if still mediated look at the violence. This divide drives the story; Silva’s ground unit is backed up by Bishop (John Malkovich) and a group of tech specialists in a remote location called “Overwatch.” They’re linked to Silva through radio communication, and they operate from afar using computer technology and changing traffic lights; they kill the power in a tenement to disrupt adversaries and order drone strikes on obstacles. Some of the surveillance images Berg uses reflect what Bishop sees. Others, like street mounted cameras watching the convoy of vehicles as it moves through town, suggest a world of ever-watchful mechanical eyes that never have to blink.

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The disconnect between these two viewing positions creates tension. Mile 22 offers two experiences of its narrative. On the ground, the action is often thrilling and always intense. Another thing Berg seems to have learned from Heat is the sonic impact of the shots. The way the gunfire echoes off the buildings in Mann’s shootout feels the same here. However, in the empty warehouse where Bishop and his crew offer support, the violence happens at a profound remove. Bishop dresses in a suit, except for a pair of lucky Converse sneakers that heighten the separation between the physical theatre of warfare and the digital one. Their computer terminals are ad hoc, set up in a different location for each operation so as to maximize secrecy. The tech support team not only aids Silva — Bishop outranks him. In the film’s cold open, a suburban United States assault on a middle-class home doubling as a nest for Russian hackers, Berg goes to great lengths to show a series of bobblehead figures of U.S. Presidents from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama. When the team sets up for its next mission later in the film, one member conspicuously adds a red-hatted Donald Trump. These images make the Overwatch team a direct enactor of U.S. foreign policy, working with Silva’s men on the ground to execute the 70-year continuity of the post-World War II global order. Through their actions, presidential authority is made real.

It is an extension of that authority that leads to the deaths of the Russian hackers in their undercover enclave in the film’s first sequence, including a young man, no older than 20, who insists that the team is “making a mistake” before he’s executed. The film’s third act reveal, that the young man was the son of a female Russian general, who has engineered the film’s events as a way of getting revenge against the Overwatch team, calls that authority and its decisions into serious question. With most of Silva’s team dead in the streets, Bishop and the Overwatchers are ambushed by a hit squad and gunned down. Li boards the plane meant to take him to safety but crashes it instead, as Silva looks on from the ground, helpless. He was not a source, a witness, or a begrudging asylum-seeker. He was an agent on a suicide mission to deliver a crushing blow to the covert team who killed the son of an important Russian military figure.

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Blowback occurs when policymakers fail to take into account the far-reaching ramifications of their actions. While Mile 22 is not based on true events in the same way as the other Berg-Wahlberg collaborations, it self-consciously takes place in its moment, even staging a bobblehead presidential inauguration in miniature. Its heroes are anything but heroic — their decisions are suspect, their personalities are abrasive, their personal lives are either non-existent or in shambles. When they die, they do so in vain, taking a few of the enemy with them, but making no real overall dent in the opposing force’s numbers. And ultimately, Mile 22 suggests that it is impossible for these operatives (and the government they represent) to kill their way out of a problem. There are always more enemies around the corner, some of whom do not even reveal themselves until it is too late. And eventually, no matter how far the Overwatch team removes itself from the physical consequences of violence, the victims will only take so much before they strike back.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.

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