Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is set in Baghdad, 2004 - which was five years ago. It seems so unlikely that we could already be talking about the “definitive” movie concerning the war in Iraq - but that’s what some are calling the latest film from director Kathryn Bigelow. And yet, hard as it may be to believe that such a conversation could be taking place, consider that Apocalypse Now bowed in 1979, only four years after the last (living) Americans in Vietnam fled by helicopter from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon.

Apocalypse Now is not the definitive movie concerning the Vietnam War, but it is a damning indictment of an America that sticks its nose in places where it doesn’t belong. The war in Iraq is evidence that our elected “leaders” are both cosmically arrogant and took away no lessons from Vietnam. (It might have been easier to learn those lessons had some of those leaders actually, you know, served in Vietnam - but whatever. In retrospect, though, you can sort of see why they might not have wanted to go. You serve in Vietnam and you get to be slandered by Republican rednecks and lose a Presidential election in no small part because millions of stupid Americans believed those lying Republican rednecks.) The Hurt Locker, however, is not a damning indictment of anyone.

Instead, it’s a paean to the troops who have served and are serving and who - regardless of how they wound up there - understand that the most important thing for them to do is to get the job done. The most political line in the whole movie comes when Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner) forces an Iraqi cab driver at gunpoint to back away from an area where he and his Explosive Ordnance Disposal crew are conducting an operation. The cabbie eventually backs up, after James holds his pistol flush up against the cab driver’s forehead (after shooting out his windshield), and he is subsequently detained by other American soldiers on the scene. Later, James laughs about the incident and says of the cabbie, “Well, if he wasn’t an insurgent before, he sure as hell is now.” The line underscores the obvious point that we are doing far more harm than good in Iraq - but then again, we never had any business there in the first place, so it sort of goes without saying that we’re doing more harm than good.

The film moves from one bomb disarming scene to another, mostly showing how James and the two soliders under his command learn to work together in spite of James’ cavalier attitude toward rules and protocol and what sometimes feels like a disregard for the well-being of his fellow soldiers. The bond of trust between the three is realized in an extended scene in the middle of the film that puts James and his group in the middle of the desert with a group of men who look at first as though they might be insurgents, but turn out to be British bounty hunters with a flat tire. A somewhat standard courage-in-the-face-of-death scene then takes place when the two groups are pinned down by a sniper.

Actually, you know what? It’s best if we don’t think too much about the story here. James’ Bravo Company has about as many days left in its rotation as the imaginary Noah had on his made-up ark, and James might be drawn as such a cavalier just to lend enough interest to the story to keep us watching - who’s going to get the team killed first, the Iraqis or their commander? The accolades raining down on the script and screenwriter Mark Boal are for the crisp dialogue and the staging - not for the story itself.

Oddly enough, that’s not really a bad thing. One of the first things I thought when I came out of this movie was that it was one of the more technically proficient films I had seen in awhile - the sound, photography, and direction are all excellent - even the handheld stuff. This is not one of those movies where it’s good for the director to ease up and let the camera roll so that the actors can let the story unfold; instead, this is a picture that needs its multiple cameras and multiple angles, a picture that needs for its crew to be embedded, as it were, with the actors, because the threadbare story is just the admission ticket - it’s not the show.

The show is the smart-ass cowboy disarming bombs - and if we know practically nothing more about Sergeant James at the end of the film than we did at the beginning, well...that’s okay. Normally I’m all about character development, but this is one of those rare instances when the characters come to you already fully formed. Instead of character development, which involves a process of change, there is character revelation - wherein the audience is allowed to see certain things about the characters, as those things pertain to the story. (Much the same thing took place in No Country for Old Men.)

We see a few chinks in his outward machismo, but that’s really the extent of it; this is a meat and potatoes, Marlboro smoking, whiskey drinking sumbitch, pardner - and again, that’s okay. You sort of want your guys in uniform to be the ones who can kick a lot of other people’s asses. Is the movie saying that only a crazy redneck with a deathwish can make any kind of sense of the war in Iraq? I don’t think so. The message is more along the lines of that it takes a person with a certain kind of mentality to get the job done in an Army being run by corrupt, lying Republicans. (Corrupt, lying Republicans might be a redundancy. If I can get Tom DeLay off the dance floor to take a call, I’ll ask him.)

And Jeremy Renner does a fantastic job as Sergeant James - the performance is so good that I suspect I’ll be hearing the voice of Sergeant James at least the next few times I see Renner in anything. (I just sort of assume that his schedule is going to get a lot more hectic now - and that it may well get worse after the Oscars.) He tosses off the lines like he’s been reading this script his whole life and waiting for Kathryn Bigelow to call - and this is also a testament to the strength of Mark Boal’s script. A screenplay has to be awfully good (and awfully well performed) in order for the film to work when story and characterization take a back seat to action and dialogue - Die Hard, anyone?

The ending is unnecessary, though - it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know or suspect about Sergeant James, and it just adds minutes to a running time that, at two hours and thirteen minutes, starts to feel long toward the end. Then again, Bigelow could have dramatically reduced the number and length of the slow motion shots, and saved us some time that way. These are minor quibbles, though. The Limits of Control was awfully good, and at the end of the day I liked it better - but The Hurt Locker is easily the best film I’ve seen this year.

1 comment:

Godfather Weilhammer said...

Thank Christ. You reviewed something I might see! Just think, I could actually talk to you about a movie. Wouldn't that be odd?