Mile 22 (2018) by Peter Berg
Review by Reid Ramsey
With Mile 22, Peter Berg departs from his streak of Mark Wahlberg-helmed true-story action films to give us just a plain and simple Mark Wahlberg-helmed action film.
Wahlberg and his team of consistently disavowed super troopers must safely transport Iko Uwais, Indonesian action star who has memorized the code to locate a nuclear power-source which is likely spread all over the globe, twenty-two miles from the American Embassy in Indonesia to the airstrip where they can board the plane that will extract Uwais from his country.
Seems pretty simple, right?
If you think it sounds complicated, you’re right. And I haven’t even mentioned the Russian involvement yet. No matter how far I digress into the minute plot points, Berg and Wahlberg’s fourth venture in five years doesn’t miss so wildly just because of an overly complex story, it misses the mark for what it lacks from other Peter Berg movies: his token grounding in real events, understanding of tragedy and location, and the simple, unquestioning patriotism.
We’ll start with the true event spin of most of Berg’s recent output. In 2013, the Berg/Wahlberg bromance gave Americans the sleeper-hit Lone Survivor, the story of American soldiers who set out to kill a Taliban leader only to find themselves in the midst of a chaotic struggle that they themselves can barely comprehend. Berg, while being the unapologetic patriot he is, introduces clever themes accidentally in Lone Survivor. While it is not a particularly successful movie, his common shaky-cam cinematography technique shakes up the otherwise steady patriotic faith of the soldiers. In his editing and cinematography choices, he allows for doubt to creep into the minds of the solid-as-a-rock soldiers who truly believe they are on the correct side of a holy war. In dramatizing the true events and making them cinematic, Berg applies his own criticisms of the war effort. His following two films with Wahlberg, Deepwater Horizon (2016) a harrowing rendition of the worst oil spill in US history, and Patriot’s Day (2016) an unbearably tense and wrenching telling of the hours after the Boston Marathon bombing and ensuing manhunt, both use this same grounding in reality to tell deeply affecting stories. Mile 22 isn’t based on a true story, and that doesn’t make it inherently bad.
However, Mile 22 is just a bad story filled with bad characters and knowing that fictional characters were purposefully written and directed this way makes it all the worse.
In Mile 22, Wahlberg plays elite government agent Jimmy Silva. His child-prodigy backstory is outlined entirely in the opening credits, one of the few interesting moments of the movie. Silva is given a few signifying character traits to carry him through the film: he snaps a little yellow wristband when his mind is moving too fast, he solves puzzles that have no pictures, and, oh, he is just a jerk. In fact, he is one of the most villainous recent protagonists committed to screen. Every action is laced with venom and even his hero moment of going back to save his apprentice is filled with reluctance. For me, such heinous protagonists should only be used if it’s based on a true story or if the writer and director are critiquing the horrific actions of the protagonist by placing the audience in their shoes. Berg and screenwriter Lea Carpenter are doing neither here.
Outside of even Silva’s ruthless, joyful killer, Mile 22 takes pleasure in brutal killings, including an impersonal, celebratory drone strike which kills the Indonesian chief of police.
Through his past several movies, Berg has had a shocking depth of understanding of tragedy. Both Deepwater Horizon and Patriot’s Day exist only based on empathy. They are thrillers for most of their running time, but the weight and import doesn’t come with the thrill, the patriotism, or the action. The films weigh on the viewer because of Berg’s ability to empathetically connect with characters, events, and locations. Whether it’s his masterful understanding of Boston, or his entry into the minds of blue-collar workers on the oil deck of the Deepwater Horizon, he connects not only with his characters but also with their surroundings. His ability to make these connections is most apparent in his greatest achievement: Friday Night Lights (TV Show 2006-2011) which he executive produced and directed several episodes (including the pilot which I believe to be among the greatest hours of television ever made).
In the series, Berg, along with the other creators of course, reveals a world of contradictions: we see lives torn apart by high school football, a town torn apart, but when the lights do come up, and the football comes front and center, Berg convinces us that it is somehow worth it. The divisions of everyday life, those of class, race, education all fade away and for a staggering 60 minutes football takes over.
Unfortunately Mile 22 features none of this understanding of location and tragedy. As stated above, it often celebrates tragedy, as in the drone strike. The film also has little geographic understanding of Indonesia. Despite casting Indonesian actor Uwais, the movie has no interest in understanding the cultural or geographic landscape. Berg’s camera, employing an austere look for the first time and forsaking his typical documentary style, is manic. The editing cuts constantly to hide the movements of the characters and the vibrancy of the city. What may be Jakarta (the movie never clarifies), might as well be Gotham. Even Uwais’s universally praised action performance is hidden behind endless cuts and blood spatter. An invigorating moment in the trailer shows Uwais walking backwards up a wall while holding onto the neck of a killer. This moment, while being in the best action scene of the film, is immediately deflated when the view of the impressive stunt becomes obstructed by a cut to a different angle. (I want to watch actors walk backwards up walls all day; don’t ruin that for me, Berg.)
The lack of understanding of geography both in a large sense, and in the smaller sense of a single shot or set piece, is as new to Berg’s filmography as the lack of empathy. His prior movies revel in empathy, often to a degree some critics find irresponsible, but Mile 22 has no empathy, no heart, and no conscience.
His previous films, both fictional and based on true events, usually find their heart in a relatable emotion. Critics tend to reduce Berg’s ability to empathize to an overly-simplified patriotism or even more ruthlessly on an opportunistic need to dramatize true events as a cash-grab measure. While the opportunism seems to ring false to anyone who watches more than a trailer, the patriotism claim is founded. His movies are about Americans being Americans for the sake of a better America. Yet it’s in the simple, trusting patriotism that his movies find their power.
Regardless of one’s feelings toward their country, the simple, patriotic acts actually strike a much broader chord than you’d expect. His characters rarely grapple with the consequences of their actions. Their faith in America is well-founded and responsible. I think most people can relate to having a responsible faith in something. Whether it is your country, your religious affiliation, your education, your family, etc., everyone believes in something. If Berg’s movies were specifically about Americanism, they wouldn’t be as broadly relatable as they are. In fact, they are more about a general faith than anything else.
That being said, Mile 22 has no faith.
The most telling moment of the movie comes when we learn that Wahlberg’s team of covert agents must resign and be disavowed before beginning their mission. The mission is so off-the-books that they cannot be considered agents. In many spy and action movies dealing with government entities, this would normally be played as a positive. You might hear a character say, “They love their country so much, they’re willing to do anything, even be disavowed.” Here, though, it is played with no explanation and feels more treasonous than anything else. Nothing is sanctioned, and the constant violence feels much more inappropriate because of it. After the first scene of the movie, my girlfriend leaned over to me and, referring to Wahlberg and his team, asked if they were the good guys or the bad guys. We see these characters we are supposedly rooting for commit horrible and unexplainable actions. They aren’t grounded in any allegiance and are therefore impossible to understand.
Where Berg has made so many understanding and intelligent action films in the past, he unquestionably fails with Mile 22. The most dizzying thing about the movie, is that I don’t quite know how to position it within my understanding of his filmography. It doesn’t fit within his aesthetic, his empathy, his characterization, or quite frankly his talent. What so many critics have maligned as Berg’s worst quality, his tendency to dramatize true events in an aggressively patriotic way, is in fact what could have saved him here. He could have used, among better aesthetic and character choices, a little bit of heart, a more intelligent script, and a location that feels more like home.