Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker understands what makes a great war film. It is not apolitical, as many claim, but its politics are naturally and almost imperceptibly stated through the characters' actions, not their words. While a few great war films can wear their politics on their sleeves (Platoon), it's almost always more enjoyable to see minimal or at least vague rhetoric in the service of something deeper (Apocalypse Now). Bigelow's film fills the space left by its lack of open polemics with the the natural conversation of men too preoccupied with survival to discuss their various affiliations.

And tension. Unbearable, teeth-chattering tension. The tension of this film is so ever-present, so skillfully maintained, so...tense that at one point I noticed my hands were actually shaking. I nearly closed my eyes at several stages, as though I were watching an effective horror film. Which it is, essentially: The Hurt Locker is the story of a specialized type of warfare within a specialized type of warfare, where the faceless enemy is even more hidden.

Concerning the exploits of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team, the film presents us with a group of soldiers who volunteer for one of the bravest tasks in the force: locating and disarming IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). On this battleground, a remote-detonating cell phone is more dangerous than an AK-47, and a pile of rubble can be either debris or a deathtrap.

Following the death of Bravo Company's previous team leader, Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) must welcome their new leader Sgt. 1st Class William James. Jeremy Renner gives one of the year's best performances as James, a cocksure ball of swagger and indifference who is at once the Army's ideal poster boy and everything that is wrong with the American mindset in Iraq. He's also what I believe they used to call "certifiable": on his first day, while other two still mourn their previous sergeant, he forgoes the safety of using their bomb-detecting robot to uncover a suspected IED and just dons a protective suit and checks it out himself. As he walks down the street, he's sure to make a show of it, as much for his new teammates as the Iraqis looking on from windows and roofs.

James' style puts him at odds with his more conventional teammates, to say the least, but you can't argue with results. After he successfully diffuses a car filled with enough explosives to take out a city block, an ecstatic colonel sings his praises as asks the soldier how many bombs he's disarmed, and James (in a rare show of humility) mumbles, "873, sir." He keeps the various triggers of his victories as morbid souvenirs in a basket along with his wedding ring ("all the things that nearly killed me," he chirps), and Eldridge and Stanborn only look on in revulsion. Each of these men fits a loose soldier archetype -- James the cocky one; Stanborn the cool, by-the-book operator; and Eldridge, the one who didn't realize what he signed up for and is slowly losing it over the stress of his job. That's understandable, I might add; I nearly lost it over watching a dramatization of it.

But writer Mark Boal, who spent time reporting with an EOD team and came up with the much of the material for Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah, sidesteps simple classifications and presents us with real people. Apart from a forced line at the start when James tells the men he's not "trying to replace Thompson," their conversations don't fall within the usual war movie talk of bad C.O.s and their opinions on why they fight. Their conversations and actions reveal their myopic views of the war, however; James views all of the Iraqis as merely spectators to his talent show, while the other two just see them as potential targets. James grows fond of a young Iraqi boy hawking DVDs to the GIs, but when he believes the boy was killed by insurgents he's so blinded by rage that he doesn't notice the kid saying hello.

I mentioned the tension earlier, but only in superlatives: Bigelow uses shaky cam footage in the most artistic, appropriate setting this side of a Paul Greengrass film. The draw of shaky cam is its purported ability to draw us into the action and make us a part of it, but too often it smacks of gimmickry. Bigelow's style allows her to capture the utter confusion of these soldiers' jobs, and every cut away to an observing Iraqi only bolsters the feeling of dread. She will make you fear the nondescript metal canisters -- actually, that's one of only two gripes I have with the film; why is it that all of the improvised explosive devices look the same? -- and the scene where James follows a wire to its source, lifts it up only to uncover five bombs surrounding him is bone-chilling.

There's also a scene out in the desert, where our team stumbles upon contracted mercenaries (and I was certainly surprised to see Ralph Fiennes among them) carrying two of the most wanted terrorist leaders and are suddenly ambushed by a sniper team. This protracted sequence, involving only a handful of enemy combatants, is as insular and nail-biting as the grandest battle scene is bombastic and horrific. The audience let out audible groans when Stanborn missed one of his extreme-long-range shots, but they did not cheer when a round did hit its target. Stanborn and James sit on their perch, utterly immobile as flies buzz on their eyelids and in their mouths, as wind gusts blow sand in their faces, for hours, and you can feel the passage of time. This sequence, for all its simplicity, belongs on the short list of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed. It is a masterclass in suspense and realism.

Bigelow has a way of presenting us with all the horrors of Boal's script without exploiting them, nor does she glorify (or condemn) these men. I say men because I noted the complete absence of any female soldiers in the film. I thought it was odd that Bigelow would not portray any women, which speaks more to my white male liberal guilt than it does any shortcomings on her or Boal's part. But I remember an interview with a female specialist given to Stephen Colbert in his recent Iraqi tour about the role of women in the service, and I looked it up and was shocked to discover that the closest a woman can come to a combat position is military police. I'd kind of like to see a film about that, though it would likely be preachy as hell.

At its heart, The Hurt Locker serves as a first-person view of the consummate terror of the current state of warfare, where enemies and allies are neither immediately identifiable nor constant. When James heads toward a bomb for his first defusion with his new company, a taxi driver nearly drives right into him, leading to a tense showdown with the sergeant fearlessly standing down a man who fluctuates between confusion and hatred; soldiers eventually take the man into custody, and James snidely remarks, "If he wasn't an insurgent, he sure as hell is now." The pressure of this doubt affects the men in different ways: Eldridge struggles to maintain his sanity, Sanborn adopts a by-the-book attitude that belies the skills he would have learned and used in his previous work in intelligence and, one can infer, allows him to brush off potential failure onto faulty directions. James, of course, finds a sick thrill in the unknown, and when something finally does penetrate his solipsist fog he's too egotistical to pay complete attention to it. His biggest display of a humanity is but a small basket -- the titular locker -- filled with pieces of all the bombs he defused, a perverse shrine that subtly reflects how, in some way, the job is taking its psychological toll on James as well, even if he never shows it.

In the epilogue, Bigelow follows a soldier back home for a time, at first too big a jump from the grittiness of Iraq but once your eyes adjust it paints a clearer portrait of these men, all brave and truly heroic but perhaps in the military because Iraq, for all its dangers, frightens them less than "normal" life. Plus, the forced perspective shot of the endless cereal aisle is a fun touch. Simply put, this is the finest film yet made about the Iraq war, and the finest picture concerning modern combat since Black Hawk Down. A mixture of Generation Kill's front-line honesty and one of the tensest thrillers of recent memory, The Hurt Locker is a triumph on every level and a film that's worth going out of your way to see.

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