The Hurt Locker (2008, Kathryn Bigelow)

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Designed explicitly to override war-film clichés by operating from a more generally appealing suspense format, The Hurt Locker is a strange and not altogether satisfying but still fascinating movie, a product of its wartorn time that skirts obvious and grand statements as effectively as Children of Men, which seems to have been an influence. Set in the early part of the war in Iraq, the gripping and difficult story follows a bomb squad trained to defuse IEDs — a job fraught with tension and peril, as we see in the first moments when one team leader is killed. At its best, Hurt Locker immerses you in the field: you feel the mounting pressure, the danger, and the meticulous dedication. It’s been said that the finished product is full of technical inaccuracies and other such fallacies, but it ends up being so emotionally effective it hardly matters. That the project is helmed by Kathryn Bigelow, one of the most acclaimed of all modern action directors, helps it gain a sense of perspective and coy irony it might have missed in other hands.

That escape from war movie normal runs as a stronger undercurrent than you might expect. When you initially meet Jeremy Renner as the hotheaded replacement for Guy Pearce or even Anthony Mackie as his corresponding voice of reason, it’s difficult to imagine the movie really getting inside either of their heads. And happily, it’s only secondarily that the film is a character study; above all else, it’s a document of tension and massive stress — it doesn’t try to make the horrors of combat fun or enlightening, but it does capture a certain thrill and adrenaline rush and above all sells the feeling of being somewhere and needing desperately to get out, now. The central performances of Renner and Mackie as well as a surprisingly robust supporting cast (including Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes, among others) have a nearly note-perfect cinema verite quality that allows them never to distract with self-conscious actorly moments. The script can’t allow such a luxury, though, as it does occasionally descend to a cartoonish perspective on depression — replete with a scene of Renner’s Sgt. James fully clothed in the shower — that muddles up the premise somewhat.

The action setpieces scattered around the narrative, though, are marvelous filmmaking, all of them beautifully executed, believably frantic, and a true test of one’s will to look away. A climactic sequence about an innocent man who’s had a bomb strapped to him is a work of absolute mastery: unstoppably tense but heartbreaking and tragic, James’ final apology to the man he won’t be able to save a marvel of sorts — how something can seem so genuine and so empty at once, how seldom we have seen or will ever see emotions like that of those two men in that moment captured in a Hollywood film. The extended tangent involving a friendship between James and a child named Beckham, whom he later believes he encounters as a human bomb, could nearly be a movie in itself — and a part of me wishes it had been. That’s really the sole positive note to the way that James overtakes the narrative in the second half, the film previously having been something of an ensemble story, but screenwriter Mark Boal seems to want passionately to tell the tale of this one man’s recklessness, how it helps and hurts his job in the field, and how it alienates and endears him to others. The script seems in the end rather critical of its central character, proposing a certain distressing heartlessness to his inability to relate to the world anywhere but in the center of the war, which is one reason you end up wishing we came to know his two teammates (Mackie’s Sanborn; Brian Geraghty as Eldrich) as well as we know him, as well as it seems we will in the first act.

Despite its obvious movie-world mapping and elevation, The Hurt Locker manages to feel impressively and devastatingly like real life, like a documentary. That’s to some degree a result of the complete cinematic majesty of its editing style: a pair of accomplished editors managed to put this material, shot from multiple angles, together from more than 200 hours of footage. That’s why despite the location fakery — Jordan standing in for Iraq — the world of The Hurt Locker feels so remarkably and scarily lived in. Bigelow’s camera captures so much telling detail in such minimalistic, quick sweeps you can distract yourself thinking about how much work it must have been.

But the editing and shooting style have to work overtime because Boal’s story and script are so painfully lopsided — suggesting a linear narrative at the outset about the crew’s resistance to their new team leader, the film instead veers into episodic and tangential territory, with some vignettes devoted wholly to characterization with no story-advancing content and vice versa, in an often disconnected style that, in fairness, somewhat resembles actual life and experience. It’s a problem, though, because we are expected to join in the condemnation of James’ style of working and the many times he nearly gets everyone killed, and yet it’s James who carries us through to the film’s bitter finale, Sanborn especially having gradually become a background character, which is a pity since his tearful concession to his hatred of military life is one of the most resonant moments we’re permitted. The effect on the whole is of a movie trying to tell too many stories at once; it’s as if Boal, while under cover, took a series of disconnected notes about things he observed and attempted to awkwardly jam them all into a two-hour movie. It doesn’t really work, compelling though it is.

One theme that does run fairly consistently through the full two hours is a slightly veiled mockery of machismo, especially through James’ actions and other characters’ reactions to him, from the early bystander who gleefully calls him “wild man” after he nearly blows up everyone in a mile-long radius to what comes across as his general douchebaggery. Bigelow also wryly captures the homoerotic power play of boy-time among dudes trying to upstage on another under the guise of friendship and bonding; one doubts that a conventional action movie would put so unflinching an eye on the way that validation and one-upmanship can drive a soldier’s psychology and actions. It’s not really critical of them, not directly, but it certainly has a skepticism toward the infrastructure that surrounds them, that manifests a certain self-perpetuating image of muscle and emotional hardness.

Back when The Hurt Locker was released and won the Oscar, quite a fuss was made over its supposed absence of politics, liberal commentary having been a major fixture of most Iraq War films that preceded it. The mystifying thing is how, despite the lack of prosthelytizing, anyone could mistake this for an apolitical movie. The aforementioned “wild man” sequence seems icily critical of the “cowboy” mentality that seemed to be a primary motivation for the U.S.’s involvement in Iraq under President Bush — and one simply cannot see young boys alive one instant and gone in the next, so wastefully and pointlessly as the psychiatrist Lt. Col. Cambridge in one chilling sequence, without thinking carefully over the aspects of war and its consequences that inevitably lead to the questions about why we’re even here — which linger and nag constantly, whether they’re explicitly stated in the film or not, and for his part, Sanborn nearly states them in his speech about wanting a son. Is there such a thing as an apolitical war film? I’d wager not, but even if there is, this isn’t one. It stings with a sense of futility ripped from the headlines of its era.

The finale of the film is interesting and unexpected, as uncomfortably as it deviates from the prior structure and turns into a full-on character study of James. It weaves nicely the sociopolitical comment of just what sort of person a war turns you into with a further assault upon testosterone-drenched psychology: James returns home but finds everything, from cereal aisles to talking to his wife to attempting to raise a child, so damned mundane he simply returns to combat. The Hurt Locker is hardly the first film to operate from the “war is a drug” thesis and indeed, by now the notion is so common a conceit to a tale of warfare it’s almost laughable — but given what’s come before and the subtlety of this ending, the way it focuses on the pain James causes his loved ones, we can have a certain confidence that Bigelow means to show us not the glory of this kind of life but the hollowness and desperation of it, like perhaps war does turn men into machines and maybe that’s not such a glorious and respectable thing?

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