Monday, September 21, 2009
I recently started writing for a new website called In Review Online. My first piece for the (fairly) young zine is a review of David Guggenheim's detrimentally polite rock-doc It Might Get Loud. From here on out, I'll be splitting my film-crit duties between this blog and the new website. (No worries, I'll always post a link here to the outside reviews.) If you'd like to comment, feel free to do it there or here, as I will be checking both.
Next up on the docket: a truly horrific quadruple feature, a review of Michael Moore's latest polemic, two pieces for IRO's Lars Von Trier retrospective, and some sporadic coverage of the Chicago International Film Festival.
Monday, September 14, 2009
War is work and sport in Katherine Bigelow's The Hurt Locker.
“All war movies are anti-war movies.”
-Francis Ford Coppola
“There can be no pacifistic film which has a central hero, a protagonist—no matter how anti-militaristic its sentiments are. So long as there is participation […] with the soldiers, such a film accentuates military fervor.”
-Harry Alan Potamkin
“Even hell needs heroes.”
-Richard Corliss, on The Hurt Locker
War is hell, the movies tell us. But what do they show us? Death and dismemberment, yes. Madness and terror and trauma, yes. But also heroism. And camaraderie. And discipline. And excitement. It’s a dirty job, this war thing, but somebody’s got to do it. And what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger, right? I think of Adam Davies in Saving Private Ryan, at last getting the gall to pull that trigger. His innocence is lost a little too late, but war has finally made a man out of this quivering coward. I think of those U.S. Army commercials, like the one about the dude on furlough who discovers that his buddies are shiftless losers, or the one about the kid who can suddenly look his Paw in the eyes. (That’s right, boys: join the Army and your emotionally distant father will finally love and respect you!) These are enlistment ads, of course. So then are most combat movies, even the supposedly pacifistic ones. War may be hell, but between all that running and shooting and manly men bonding sessions, goddamn it if it doesn’t look kind of cool, too.
Director Sam Fuller was always grappling with this problem, with the challenge of making a war movie that didn’t inadvertently glorify warfare. (The Steel Helmet and The Big Red One, his seminal contributions to the genre, flirt with this ideal but don’t quite realize it. Cause really, who wouldn’t want to suit up and fight alongside Gene Evans or Lee Marvin?) “They made another goddamn recruitment film,” Fuller famously griped on his way out of Full Metal Jacket, frequently cited as the staunchest of the anti-war pictures. I wonder what he would have made of The Hurt Locker.
Katherine Bigelow’s new Iraq war drama, about the waning service days of an elite bomb squad, doesn’t just get the heart racing. It wires your entire central nervous system to the quickened pulse of its beleaguered band of brothers. It transports you not just to the narrow, scarred, treacherous streets of war-torn Baghdad—an alien landscape, all rubble and mangy cats and suspicious eyes—but directly into the frazzled headspace of the soldiers navigating them. A different kind of war movie for a different kind of war, The Hurt Locker predicates its “thrills” not on the slam-bang spectacle of gunfire and explosion, but on the fevered anticipation, the sick dread of such things. For these particular soldiers, there are no campaigns to win, no checkpoints to clear, no privates to save. There are no heroes here in this smoldering desert. Only the living and the dead.
Bigelow’s battlefield is indeed a bleak one, yet to deny that there is a gripping excitement to her war games is to ignore one of the most popular and weathered of action movie tropes: the snipping of red and green wires, the race against the clock, the nerve-jangling spectator sport that is bomb disarmament. The Hurt Locker swaps out the run-and-gun exhilaration of Vietnam and WWII combat pictures for the bated breath intensity of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller. (It was ol’ Hitch, after all, that defined suspense as a bomb underneath a table that doesn’t explode.) The film’s seductive draw is decidedly different than that of its gung-ho predecessors: not the allure of killing, but that of staying alive, of staring death in the face each and every day, of living with it. For a lost generation, restless and uncertain about its place in the world, facing the looming specter of mundane adulthood, the promise of such a daily adrenaline rush might be hard to resist.
Of course, The Hurt Locker takes as its subject that very problem: the romantic appeal of (and subsequent addiction to) modern warfare. Its focal point, its poster boy, its living and breathing embodiment of the “Be All You Can Be” ethos is Staff Sergeant William James, new team leader of a three-man EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) unit. Played by Jeremy Renner, in a turn at once live wire intense and maddeningly impenetrable, James is the modern soldier as thrill-junkie sociopath. When we first encounter this cowboy daredevil, he’s kicking back in his quarters, getting pumped up to the heavy-metal strains of Ministry. This is the pre-game ritual—war is sport to SSgt. James. And unlike his predecessor (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Guy Pearce, dispatched in the film’s gut-wrenching opening sequence), he isn’t much of a team player. In his first excursion with the new unit, a “routine” distress call concerning a bomb embedded in the road, James tosses a canister of smoke gas along the path he walks. It’s a “distraction” that obstructs the vision of both his hypothetical enemies and very real brothers in arms. A “Wild Man,” one superior affectionately brands him. “Reckless,” is what new teammate Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) thinks of him. And Specialist Owen Eldrige (Brian Geraghty), the third man, the youngest gun? He’s torn—“I admire him,” he says of James. “But he’s going to get me killed.”
And so into the fray goes this on-call cavalry, working always against the odds and the clock, day to day, mission to mission. They are peacekeepers, essentially—their job entails preventing carnage, not facilitating it—and yet death looms large in the margins of their daily lives. The film’s opening shot, a roving, robotic POV, equates these mismatched grunts with the mechanized utilities they employ. It’s not heroic supermen we’re watching here, but journeymen, professionals in a very perilous field. Their backstory comes in piecemeal, in little snippets of exposition, meted out carefully by a trio of terrific actors. (Tough to single out just one of these boys for commendation, but Geraghty, who has the trickiest role, paints an indelible portrait of paralyzing anxiety.)
“What if all I can be is dead on the side of an Iraqi road,” Eldridge ponders aloud, in one of the film’s scant instances of danger-free “downtime.” The moment is fleeting. He is soon under the gun again. The horrors of ground combat can make for terrifying movie spectacle—Coppola, Spielberg and Kubrick neatly demonstrated that—but The Hurt Locker may be the first war picture I’ve seen that’s basically all set-pieces. In one, a scavenger hunt that unfolds in queasy real-time, James calmly dismantles a car bomb while his scared-shitless wingmen scan the rooftops for scheming insurgents. Another finds our browbeaten company trading sniper fire in the desert, patience and steady hands proving as valuable as sharpshooter marksmanship. These are spectacular sequences, their power derived not from post-Private Ryan, entrails-out explicitness, but from a total immersion in the psychological space of the soldiers.
And it’s Bigelow, that mighty queen of late 80s/early 90s testosterone-fests, who makes their emotions so palpable onscreen. Her seminal works (Point Break, totally terrific bloodsucker western Near Dark) were slick genre fantasias. The Hurt Locker is more like action vérité: lean and tough, intimate in scope where most war movies are bloated and sprawling. Bigelow trades out her trademark, swapping elegant tracking shots for the small-scale immediacy of Super 16. She hones her shaky-cam on shaky hands, lingers on eyes and brows, pulls in close to catch every fleeting flash of emotion her toy soldiers transmit. Seldom does her camera offer a wider or more omnipotent view of the chaos. She keeps it low and handheld, buries it in the thick of things, lets it trail the troops like a silent, wary witness— appropriate, given that the script was penned by Mark Boal, a former combat journalist. It’s that ground-level perspective, taken in conjuncture with an interest in the emotional stress the “job” puts on its “workers,” that keeps The Hurt Locker from devolving into just another rollicking wallow in the trenches.
That, and also a reluctance to celebrate its showboating, danger-courting “protagonist.” Sanborn and Eldridge, they just want to make it out of this ordeal in one piece. By employing a running countdown, a constant reminder of how many days these besieged G.I.s have left in their tour of duty, Bigelow and Boal quietly align themselves with this just-doing-my-time perspective on war. They regard James, whose cowboy theatrics consistently put his team in hot water, about the same way that Eldrige does: with some awe, yes, but mostly with apprehension, distrust, a lack of understanding. He is unknowable, this swaggering madman—to stare into Renner’s baby blues is to search intently for something, anything recognizably human. It’s from a distance that we watch him, and the filmmakers staunchly avoid empathizing with his obsession.
Until they don’t. In what proves to be something of a misstep, Bigelow and Boal eventually anchor the film’s wandering perspective within James’ warped headspace. He is provided with a relatable back-story and a cute kid sidekick. He goes on a plain-clothes mission into Baghdad, searching for answers, seeking closure. He showers away his grief and pain, in a scene lifted from countless other Dudes Under Duress fables. He is humanized and we understand him a little better than we once did.
Thing is, we shouldn’t understand James. To understand him is to identify with him, in all his death-wish lunacy. The Hurt Locker remains a refreshingly ambiguous and unaffected war-time document only so long as it avoids depicting its soldiers as prototypically “flawed” action heroes. I think the film’s coda—a return to the field, put into dramatic slow-mo and set to crunchy rock chords—is meant to be naggingly ambiguous. It comes off instead rather triumphant, veering dangerously close to the kind of "kickass patriotism" employed by those Army and Marine music videos. “Even hell needs heroes” Richard Corliss has said of the film. If James is indeed a “hero,” a man whose bravery and conviction we should be celebrating, than is The Hurt Locker just another goddamn recruitment film, a splashy, full-page advertisement for war itself?
One thing’s for sure: it’s not directly anti-war. Nor does it purport to be. Bigelow and Boal aren’t exploring the morality of armed combat, the politics of U.S. occupation, or the machinations of the military-industrial complex. They’re less interested in why we fight than how. They wanna know what it really means to be a soldier, here and now, in this conflict, in this age. As such, theirs is the first of the Iraq War films to feel like a vital statement, even if what it actually has to say remains slightly… unclear. The film’s predecessors, those indignant screeds against Bush and his lust for oil, were too flatly rhetorical to register as anything but faint dissent. Support the troops, not the war, was their implicit rallying cry. But what did they know or show of the obstacles the troops actually faced? Lions For Lambs made war look like a soundstage. Redacted, like amateur black box. Stop-Loss, like a videogame. In the Valley of Elah, like a web-series.
For better or for worse, The Hurt Locker makes war look like an experience. Not a game, not an adventure, not a horrific baptism of fire, but a physical and emotional experience. Whether that experience itself looks like work or sport, like hell on earth or “kind of cool” depends on how one filters the shock and awe of its particulars. Is James a madman or is he a hero? Perhaps the burden of that judgment call lies not with Bigelow, Boal or their superlative cast of play-pretend war dogs. Perhaps it’s up to us to sort that out, to impose a context upon the terrors and triumphs of these frontline anecdotes. This here’s an unaffected glimpse into the soldiering life, all nuts and bolts and warts and all. In the Age of Misinformation, isn’t that alone a mission worth accomplishing? Veteran skeptic and skeptical veteran though he was, I feel as though Sam Fuller would have agreed.