Tuesday, 14 July 2009

THE HURT LOCKER (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)

By far the most critically acclaimed film of the year so far is Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war action film The Hurt Locker. When discussing the film, people inevitably point out that it is an "apolitical" Iraq film, usually claiming this as one of the reasons it is so successful. In my opinion, there is no such thing as an "apolitical" film, but I understand what the critics are referencing. Unlike many of the other Iraqi films, there is no overt political stance, nothing polemical about the story. It is an action film set in Iraq, about an elite three man bomb squad. Most of the film concerns the men doing their job, with brief moments away from battle in between. It has the feel of a Howard Hawks film, of professionals at work. But, it is also, I think very clearly, a film about America in Iraq. The political may be subtext here, but it is nevertheless very present. (WARNING: Some spoilers ahead)

After an opening in which the first group leader is killed, the film follows the new group leader, Sgt. James, along with Sgt. Sanborn and Specialist Eldridge. Clearly, James is the lead of the movie, a character with tremendous charisma, a man who seems, especially through the first part of the film, to be exactly the type of man and leader war requires. He may be crazy and have a death wish, but the film also romanticizes this as the type of bravery and courage one needs in battle (he is reminscient of the character of Kilgore in Apocalypse Now). He is also very paternal, especially to young Eldridge, who is seeing a army doctor because he is having difficulty adjusting to the stress of his job.

The major set piece of the film is a sniper battle, and although it is a great example of filmmaking from Bigelow, it is also the most ideologically dubious part of the film. It ends up having the feel of a video game, in which we can take pleasure and thrill from long distance murder. This takes place roughly halfway through the film. Fortunately, the last hour works towards questioning the heroism it initially celebrates.

This begins right after the battle, when the three men have a drunken evening together. At the end of this night, James puts on the helmet he uses when going into diffuse bombs. It is the only thing he feels comfortable doing. In the next scene, the men discover a "body bomb" which James believes is the young Iraqi boy he has befriended. This drives him towards revenge, in which he recklessly puts his men's lives in danger.

On one of these ill-advised missions, Eldridge is wounded and sent home, denouncing James before he leaves. Shortly afterwards, we learn that the young Iraqi boy is actually still alive, making James' actions even more absurd. The final mission before leaving is trying to diffuse a bomb strapped to an innocent Iraqi man. This time, however, James is unable to save the man and the bomb explodes.

James and Sanford survive, although their faces show the effects of the shrapnel. They have an extended talk about the dangers of their lives, in which Sanford claims he hates the country and wants to leave. James, however, is a different case.

We see him back at home, but for James, this world is more strange and disconcerting than anything in Iraq. Bigelow films the supermarket in a way that would not seem altogether out of place in Godard and Gorin's Tout Va Bien. James, like America, or at least a part of America, has become an addict. In his case, as the opening states, the drug is war itself.

Early in the film, we are given a deadline heading: 38 days left in Bravo Company's rotation. However, the film ends by reversing this expectation, as James goes back to Iraq for another year of duty. The critique of America comes through this lead character, who cannot stop living this life of war. Still, Bigelow does not make this too overt. Here, she is similar to Hawks, who would often subtly critique his heroes but also maintain a certain macho admiration for them. The last shot of The Hurt Locker does this as well. It shows the absurdity of James going back into battle for another 365 days, this time into an increasingly desolate Iraq. But the use of slow-motion and loud music also gives this sequence a grandiose quality that comes across as "cool". Like most mainstream American films, The Hurt Locker is not so much apolitical as it is contradictory and incoherent at the ideological level, working on both those in favour of and opposed to America as a military force. This is a limitation and a plus: we have both a great action movie and a critique of that mentality. Ultimately, any critique of something that also becomes it is inconsistent and even hypocritical. At the same time, only the most closed-minded viewer will fail to ponder the mentality of war addiction this story puts across.


Dan Dredger said...

Is this film screening in Seoul?

Marc Raymond said...

No, but hopefully it will come out here at some point. Saw this through a screener.