Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Hurt Locker (Summit Entertainment, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Hurt Locker turned out to be a good but really brutal movie, the sort of film one respects more than one actually likes. In its attempt to depict the gritty reality of war without the usual sentimentality, glorification or other compromise it reminded me of Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (about Korea) and Oliver Stone’s Platoon (about Viet Nam) — indeed, director Kathryn Bigelow’s ex-husband (and principal rival for this year’s Academy Award for Best Director), James Cameron, talked her into taking the assignment by saying it could be “the Platoon for the Iraq war.” At the same time it’s physically a difficult film to watch, not only because it’s uncompromising in showing the gritty reality of war and it’s unrelieved by the moments of lyricism or beauty that frequently appear as counterpoint in war movies (it doesn’t help that the Iraqi desert — “played” here by neighboring Jordan — isn’t especially interesting-looking countryside; it’s all so blasted and free of distinguishing features that at times it looks like we’re watching a war movie set on the moon), but it’s also awfully jerky and jumpy.

At first I thought maybe my eyes are deteriorating faster than I thought they were, but no-o-o-o-o: the reason the images jump so much in The Hurt Locker is that director Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd chose to shoot the battle footage (which is virtually the entire movie) with hand-held Super 16 mm cameras in a surprisingly credible attempt to make the film look as if it were a documentary, shot catch-as-catch-can as the battles were going on, instead of the carefully scripted dramatic fiction it actually is. This certainly increases the verisimilitude, but it also makes the film very hard on the eyes and takes away from its strengths: the no-holds-barred shooting of the combat footage and the tight scripting (by Mark Boal, who had actually worked in Iraq as a journalist embedded with a bomb disposal unit and wrote the script largely from his personal experience with them) and acting by a trio of little-known leads in the key roles.

The film tells the story of the last 38 days in the tour of duty of the Beta Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit and the four principal people involved in it. One of them, staff sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), is blown up early on in the film and he’s replaced by staff sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, top-billed and the closest this film has to a star), the sort of half-crazy gung-ho type that has been the lead character in war movies since the early days of film (and probably in other types of war fiction even before that), at once engaging in his fearlessness and exasperating in his total irresponsibility. The people who have to put up with him and try to work with him are sergeant J. T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), the sort of avuncular African-American voice of reason usually associated with these productions (though it’s more complimentary, this Black stereotype has become as annoying a cliché as the stupid “Sambo” Black stereotype became in the 1930’s and 1940’s) and the rather colorless third man in the outfit, specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). In case you were wondering about the title, it refers to a small box of souvenirs James keeps of various bombs he’s helped disarmed — or which have gone off anyway without him, including a timer switch supposedly from the (real) bomb that blew up the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad — of which Sanborn is predictably dismissive: the Black voice of reason says, “That’s just a bunch of junk from Radio Shack.”

The plot of The Hurt Locker isn’t really a plot at all, but just a series of vignettes: in the opening scene Sgt. Thompson gets blown up while he’s trying to disarm a car bomb set off remotely by a middle-aged Iraqi man using a cell phone. Later on the bomb squad runs into a team of four men in the desert in what is called “haji drag” (“haji,” as a derisive term for Iraqis and Arabs in general, has become to this war what “Japs” and “gooks” were in America’s previous conflicts: a derisive, insulting term used to dehumanize the enemy and thereby make it easier to kill him) who turn out to be British, and both the U.S. and British forces find themselves pinned down by hostile fire coming from a white-brick house in the middle of otherwise undeveloped and unoccupied desert, and Our Heroes have to clean the blood off their ammunition before they can use their guns to pick off the assailants. In one scene emphasizing his craziness and detachment even from his fellow soldiers, James strips off his protective gear to disarm another car bomb. The squad enters one Iraqi building and finds the dead body of a 12-year-old boy who used to sell them DVD’s and find the kid’s corpse has been rigged up as a “body bomb” — and James has to stick his hands in the dead child’s innards to pull it out and disarm it.

The film goes on and on and on like that, stretching out for 131 minutes and offering little or nothing in the way of character development — these people are just what they are, Bigelow and Boal tell us; they don’t grow, they don’t change, we get the impression that the war and their role in it are warping their psyches big-time (anyone watching this film will wonder why they aren’t diagnosing everyone who returns from a tour of combat duty in Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder) but they’re already so crazy they can’t even have normal recreation: when they’re not disarming and (supposedly) harmlessly exploding IED’s they’re beating each other up in stylized fights, getting drunk and listening to hard-driving, blasting rock music courtesy of the band Ministry, three of whose half-metal, half-punk songs appear in the film. (If you believe the movies, Americans fought World War II to a Glenn Miller soundtrack, Viet Nam to the Doors and Iraq to Ministry.)

James alludes to a wife back home that has borne him a son and who may or may not have divorced him — in a badly handled scene he puts in a long-distance cell phone call to her and Bigelow suddenly cuts to her answering and we wonder, “Who the hell is she?” (until then, aside from a handful of extras playing Iraqis, we haven’t seen a woman in this movie at all to this point — it will be truly ironic if Bigelow becomes the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for a film whose cast is almost totally male) — but other than that there isn’t a hint that any of these people have either romantic or sexual lives; they don’t either date or rape the Iraqi women (which itself makes The Hurt Locker a departure from most war movies) and James is the only character depicted as having a relationship partner back home.

Much of the controversy surrounding The Hurt Locker has to do with its role in the highly contested politics of the Iraq war; real-life EOD squad members have denounced it, largely for the crazy gung-ho characterization of James and the way this, like most movies, is (as one writer put it years ago) “like real life with the boring parts left out.” The Right has predictably damned it for not being a rah-rah celebration of the heroism of Our Boys in Uniform (though the basic story could have been “spun” in exactly that fashion), but in at least one respect it’s an awfully cynical movie that the Right should have liked: there are no “innocent” Iraqi civilians. Every Iraqi we get to know in any detail turns out to be part of the resistance, either actively involved in the bombings the protagonists are trying to stop or in some way supporting the attacks. In the opening scene we hear the bomb squad members screaming at the middle-aged Iraqi to drop his cell phone — in English; one thing this movie does quite well is dramatize the communications gap between the soldiers and the native population; none of the bomb squad members speak more than a word or two of Arabic, and they’re reliant on local interpreters who have their own agenda (and who in real life have been among the most vulnerable people in the war; the Iraqi resistance groups have specifically and often brutally targeted any bilingual Iraqis who worked with the U.S. forces) — and we wonder, “Why are they making such a fuss over this poor guy and his cell phone?” Then he punches a few buttons on his phone, the car blows up, one of the disposal unit members is killed and we realize the cell phone sent the signal that set off the bomb.

Throughout the movie we keep encountering supposed Iraqi civilians who are really serving the resistance and targeting Our Heroes — and the film does an excellent job dramatizing how frazzled this leaves the U.S. forces, how they’re constantly on edge having to fight in a well-populated urban environment in which just about everyone they meet turns out to be against them (in a chilling scene towards the end, a bunch of Iraqi kids throw stones at the Humvee the bomb squad drives), in a way that leaves us wondering not why some U.S. forces have allegedly massacred Iraqi civilians but why they haven’t done it more often. The film builds to a climax of sorts [spoiler alert: Don’t read any farther if you haven’t seen the film and you want it to be a surprise when you do] when they encounter yet another middle-aged Iraqi in the middle of a street, who says (as nearly as he can make himself understood through a not particularly well-educated interpreter) that he’s been outfitted with a suicide bomb but he really doesn’t want to die and he wants the bomb squad to come to him so they can disarm him. “Yeah, right,” we’re thinking, not only because every other Iraqi civilian we’ve got to know in the piece has turned out to be duplicitous and hostile but we’re also wondering just how a man who really doesn’t want to die gets fitted with a suicide bomb — and a quite elaborate one at that, as both the bomb squad and we see after he lifts his shirt and exposes it, fitted with so many locks that even a hardened weirdo like Sgt. James gives up and dives for cover, saving his life and letting the guy blow himself up (the bomb has a timer that is set to go off just two minutes after Our Heroes encounter the bomber).

There’s a tag scene in which Sgt. James is back with his wife and their son, but his inability to adjust to civilian life is highlighted when he’s shown in a supermarket confronting a solid wall of cereal boxes (including several varieties of Lucky Charms, an irony Fritz Lang would have loved; in You Only Live Once Lang wanted Henry Fonda’s character to buy Lucky Strike cigarettes at the roadside stand where the cops catch up to him, to emphasize the bad luck that stop brings to him, but he was told he couldn’t use a recognizable brand in a 1937 film because it would constitute advertising; my, how times have changed!) He’s so alienated, in fact, that in the final scene he volunteers and ships out for another tour of duty — and we briefly wonder how on earth he’s finally going to readjust once the war is actually over, and then we realize that this is the U.S. in the 21st century and its wars are never going to be over: there’ll always be an enemy we’ll be going off to fight somewhere, in some God-forsaken part of the world, because it’s the destiny of an empire to piss off the rest of the world and thereby have to keep fighting for its own survival until it breaks down to the point where it can no longer support its military machine (and the upper class whose rule depends on keeping down the resistance both abroad and at home) and it collapses like ancient Rome.