Monday, January 18, 2010
The Hurt Locker
To date, the American films depicting the War in Iraq have been a mixed bag at best. Their collective efforts reflect nothing about the military conflict overseas. If anything, they show us the defining characteristic of our culture in the early twenty-first century: the desire to actively contextualize what’s occurring as it occurs, with analysis whose depth remains largely unquestioned by those who gravely depend on it. Perhaps the films have taught us valuable lessons, but it’s hard to recall what those lessons are when the moral to the story depends on the narrative’s conclusion. To put it another way: Hindsight may be 20/20, but do they even make a Blackberry App for that?
Some of the problems of these films, however, have also stemmed from their unwitting dependence on the war movie cliches of our century in a time when we no longer trust such devices as a whole, and for good reason. The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, succeeds by largely avoiding these traps. In the space of its 130 minutes, the lines between good and evil blur, but the great fog encasing the War and its origins is not overemphasized, let alone discussed. No larger narrative to the soldier’s purposes issues forth either, no discussion of the mission of the War. In fact, the characters merely exist in the moment, and their only hope is to keep on doing so. In the opening scene, Staff Sergeant Thompson (played by Guy Pearce), the team leader of a United States Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit, is killed. (The film avoids big name performers, who, if they appear, are almost immediately ushered offstage, which is its own statement about the nature of armed conflict.) The opening scene, then, calls the rest of the movie into question: Anyone can go at anytime. Without warning. Thus, the pace is unrelenting, the adrenaline palpable. Parts of the movie take your breath away. Literally.
On the surface, the film explores the lives of three soldiers as they finish the last months of their tour in an EOD unit in 2004. And, while the film avoids cliches, its characters are familiar archetypes we already know from past war movies. Sergeant JT Sanborn, played by Anthony Mackie, is the dutiful soldier who operates by the book and leads by example, even if he doesn't agree wholeheartedly with what's being done. Blond-haired Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) embodies each men’s fears and anxieties; in fact, he's a ball of nervous energy you know won't escape the movie without scars, physically and psychologically. And the third character, the centerpiece of the movie, Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner, is a familiar character who remains difficult to classify. He's somewhere between Apocalypse Now's Captain Willard and the man he pursues, Colonel Kurtz. James’ job is to disarm bombs while Sanborn and Eldridge provide both cover and communication. James has disarmed nearly 800 or so bombs in a row with obvious success. Instead of shrinking from conflict, he pursues it, craves it, and, as the film suggests, develops an addiction to facing his own mortality, sometimes to the detriment of the those around him. His character illustrates the notion that the very thing which affords us survival is often that which brings our survival into question in the first place, a fitting metaphor for the War on Terror. Is James crazy, or heroic? Probably both. Probably neither. Some have labeled The Hurt Locker as the defining movie of the War in Iraq. That remains to be seen. Suffice it to say it's a movie we should all watch, at least once, if only to understand what's happening, on a human level, on the other side of the world.