Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Hurt Locker

I have a thing for war movies, the legacy of many weekend afternoons spent with my Dad in front of WWII flicks ranging from the shoot-em-up bravado of The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone (a tradition of war movie seemingly soon to be reincarnated in Brad Pitt's Inglorious Bastards) to veritable docudramas like The Longest Day, Patton, and Der Untergang (Downfall).

WWII is by far the conflict most covered by Hollywood, with the recent HBO mini-series Band of Brothers probably best capturing the individual soldier's experience of this conflict. With the exception of M*A*S*H, the Korean War seems to have been largely skipped over in the cinema, as it has been in the popular imagination (please correct me if I am dismissing classics of the genre). Vietnam, like WWII, has spawned as many films as casualties, with my favorites being Scorcese's The Deer Hunter, Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, Stone's Platoon, and, of course, Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

Modern conflicts are a little harder to address on the silver screen, or over coffee for that matter, as our culture has not had a chance to reach some form of consensus on them (WWII as a righteous campaign, Korea as a "forgotten war,"and Vietnam as superpower hubris). Perhaps for this very reason, the war films - modern and classic - that I love are ones that shy away from explicit judgements on the justification of the specific campaign and more on the individual experience of the soldiers posted to the maelstrom - and filmmakers have not shied from contributing to this aspect of the conversation.

For cinematic treatment of modern wars, my top picks include David O. Russell's Three Kings, Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, Stephan Gaghan's Syriana (a stunning film that is seemingly out of place, but very relevant in my opinion for its perspective on corporate involvement the US War on Terror), and the recently released The Hurt Locker.

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) (Park Lane) Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is replacing the bomb sapper in an active explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) unit nearing the end of its tour in Iraq. Tasked with finding and difussing the seemingly endless number of deadly contraptions that take young lives every day in Iraq, I can't think of a better scenario for investigating the bonds of trust and the sense of connection that I can only imagine that soldiers depend on in the field, each looking out for the other regardless of the grand political slogan that they are fighting for.

Indeed, when James arrives, one his new partners, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), welcomes him to "Camp Victory." Upon replying that he thought it was "Camp Liberty," James is informed that it was recently changed to something that "sounds better." So the slogans keep changing and soldiers have neither influence over nor allegiance to them, but they can do something about keeping each other alive. Period.

I don't think I need to go into detail regarding why a replacement sapper was necessary, but needless to say, the tight-knit team that James joins is counting the days til they can return State-side, and more than a little bit wary of the unknown quantity that has been thrust upon them. Is James someone that they can trust with their lives?

Early in the film, the recently arrived James is approached by an officer who queries him on his track record. A telling dialog ensues:

Officer: "How many bombs have you disarmed?"
James: "873"
Officer: "873! You're a wild man."

And herein lies the problem: James is a wild man. The dialog continues with the officer asking what the best way is to disarm a bomb, to which James replies "The way that keeps you alive." The thing is, James seems to care just a little bit less about staying alive than do the other members of his team, who quickly find his way or working to be uncooperative and even reckless. During an EOD assignment when James is sent to disarm a booby trapped Hyundai Sonata (product placement gone horribly wrong?), he removes his protective headgear with the glib comment "If I'm going to die, I'm going to die comfortable," and goes on to also remove his radio headset, cutting off communication with his frustrated and scared compatriots.

Where the Wild Men Are

The story arc of The Hurt Locker, in a sense, is how the team members come to trust each other through the process of understanding their individual reactions to being constantly haunted by the specter of death. James, Sanborn, and the younger and more timid Specialist Owen (Brian Gerachty) all share the seemingly standard soldiers' diversions of loud heavy metal music and heavy drinking, but each also has their own private coping strategy:

  • James cares less, seeming reckless to others but actually freeing himself of surely crippling fear. He lives by the seemingly contradictory coda that the less you care about living the more likely you are to survive.
  • Sanborn trusts procedures, relying on constant contact with the team to ensure that basic army protocols are followed: perimeters are maintained, standard procedures are adhered to, and x-factors (like James) are eliminated.
  • Owen has faith in the longevity of his more experienced peers, constantly turning to them for confirmation of the instincts that should be automatic survival mechanisms.

None of these three leopards is about to change his spots, so what we witness is a chain of increasingly intense encounters with progressively more complicated and essentially evil explosive devices planted to kill Americans and wreak havoc for "collaborators." Through these trials by fire we watch the slow and painful process of the three men learning to become - despite their differences - what Shakespeare so aptly called "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."

I find it interesting that this film was made by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow. In The Hurt Locker, if I recall correctly, there are a total of two female characters who collectively garner about 25 seconds of screen time. On the surface that makes this is a movie about men - brothers, so to speak - in combat, but in reality it probably makes it a realistic portrayal of the war experience. Women soldiers fought on the front line of operation Desert Storm, and, presumably, the subsequent Desert Shield campaign of "shock and awe," but I imagine that they remain statistically irrelevant in combat situations - and probably virtually non-existent in the ranks of EOD specialists that are a hair from death at every moment and reliant on highly specialized and very heavy suits and equipment that are probably still designed with men in mind.

One way or the other, Bigelow, like Ridley Scott in Black Hawk Down, is masterful at her craft. The filming of The Hurt Locker is sublime, with explosive shock waves rolling across the screen like a ripple on a calm lake or the undulation in a flapping satin sheet. The ugliness of the surroundings and the sheer menacing evil of the bombs that James uncovers for our voyeuristic eyes is contrasted sharply with the strange sense of beauty that is evoked by the explosions themselves - the sense of catharsis that allows the viewer to relax again and take a deep breathe. To get a sense of this visual effect, it is only necessary to see the opening flash presentation on the masterfully designed movie homepage (http://thehurtlocker-movie.com/), which boldly declares that the film has "an intensity you can't shake."

I certainly left the theater with the shock waves rebounding in my head, and even a little bit of a feeling that I had experienced something of the EOD specialist's life. I didn't necessarily understand James, Sanborn, and Owen or agree with their individual coping mechanisms - but I felt that maybe I could trust them if, god forbid, I were ever to find myself in such ravaged climes.

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