Saturday, November 20, 2010

THE HURT LOCKER (2008): And the War in Iraq

The Hurt Locker comes as close as we will see to an honest film about any controversial subject.  It has far less flaws than the other movies that competed for Oscar for Best Picture in 2009, though this in itself does not make it a better movie.  Sometimes one movie seems more perfect than another only because the producer or director did not take chances in the making of the film.  Some may even argue that is the case with The Hurt Locker.  Director Kathryn Bigelow was extremely cautious in the making of this movie and this caution ultimately will be the chief reason that it will never be remembered as long as other war movies such as The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now.  In some respects the director tries to sidestep controversy by never letting us be entirely sure where Bigelow comes down in her outlook upon the Iraq War.  Nevertheless, the movie is refreshing in its lack of cant by not treating us to a sermon about the misdeeds of war or providing us a screed about the benefits of anti-imperialism (as we are treated to in the movie Avatar).  The movie also, though directed by a woman, is unapologetically masculine in the way it tells its story.

Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are three soldiers assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) in the area surrounding Baghdad.  Will has been newly assigned to the unit as team leader since the previous team lead was killed when attempting to disarm an IED.  Will is a genius at disarming bombs, but he takes chances (such as tossing away his headset when attempts to communicate with him become too annoying) and he continues in his attempts to disarm an explosive device long after anyone else would have given up.  It turns out that Will has been remarkably successful in disarming such devices as he’s done it 873 times before.  JT, a black sergeant in the unit whose mission is to back Will up and who is extremely professional in the carrying out of his duties, at first does not care for Will’s risk-taking behavior.  Yet overtime, he grudgingly learns to admire Will’s character (if not his tactics) as it becomes obvious that Will does very much care about the job that he is doing and does believe in his mission to save lives.  Owen, on the other hand, has a great deal more trouble adjusting to the circumstances that he has found himself in.  Owen has been seeing a psychiatric specialist to somewhat help him adjust to the rigors of war.  Owen at one point challenges the psychiatrist to join him during one of their missions resulting in the psychiatrist being killed.

We have various harrowing moments involving long-range fire-fights, disarming of bombs planted in mutilated bodies, and a sort of revenge-seeking side-plot where Will is looking for the killers of a young Iraqi boy that Will had recently come to befriend.  For his seeming reckless disregard for the dangers of the situation around him, Will does show a tender side such as when he encourages Owen to complete his job while under fire or when he takes every possible effort to disarm a bomb that has been strapped on and locked in place on a middle-aged Iraqi citizen.  Will is even willing to take the abuse of JT and Owen when he does something they are not particularly pleased with.  Towards the end of the movie, Owen blames Will for his wounds after being shot in the leg (one of the few scenes in the film that does not come off as true).  So with the 365 day mission finished, Will goes home to his wife for a short while and finds that he has little to say to her.  In 2005, Will is back in Iraq again to start another full year mission of disarming bombs.

The Hurt Locker is 130 minutes long, which is about right for this kind of film.  All of the acting was above average, though Jeremy Renner’s performance is what will be most remembered.  He actually shows some range in acting and is probably underappreciated for his performance only because the movie requires him in so many ways to understate his role.  (We come to understand that Will is only successful in what he does because he needs to downplay emotions and concerns about his immediate surroundings.)  The screenplay by Mark Boal, a former reporter that tagged along with a bomb squad in Iraq, is tightly written and doesn’t wallow in sentiment.  And Director Bigelow (former wife of James Cameron) makes the most of the screenplay with a small budget of around $15 million (compared to the $380 million paid for Avatar).

I’m generally reluctant to praise any movie that has won an Oscar for Best Picture because overtime I’ve come to regret it.  I praised last year’s winner, Slumdog Millionaire, and one year later I now feel that the movie was too cute to be entirely authentic.  Past winners have come off as stagey with characters behaving as types rather than real people.  (This would include about every movie that’s won the Best Picture’ award since 1978.)  I still don’t give the Academy Award Committee much credit for integrity in picking The Hurt Locker.  Despite the left leaning reputations of most everyone associated with Hollywood, practically nothing is awarded that comes out of their studios that is not conformist or just liberal enough to appeal to the most boring of pseudo-intellectuals.

The movie critics (that I never give much credit to) actually did show some courage in their support of this film.  Most of them actually praised the movie for its merits rather than engage in ad hominem attacks on the Bush administration, which we’ve come to so often expect when their reviewing films remotely connected to the Iraqi conflict.  The Hurt Locker has faced criticism by some veterans that feel the film portrays the Iraqi soldiers as being reckless cowboys; protesters of the war that feel the picture depicts America’s role in Iraq as being more positive than it has been in reality; and second-guessers that have criticized the movie for being too loose on the factual details of the combat taking place.  (There’s also the controversy over Producer Nicolas Chartier lobbying too much for his film and getting himself banned from the Academy Award presentations.  And there’s a lawsuit filed by a bomb detonation expert named Jeffrey Sarver who claims the character of Will James was based upon him.)  Much of this criticism is to be expected.  Certainly, liberties probably were taken with the depiction of events in this film, but not to such a degree that the movie lacks credibility.  If the details are not exact, the motivations of the characters and the tensions created by the story are real.  And though Will James certainly does not always follow protocol, his counterpart JT Sanborn does.  I do believe that a character like Will does exist out there somewhere because Will has that type of personality that would allow him to engage in such missions as are shown here.  How would we otherwise picture such an individual performing such a dangerous job over the course of a year or two?  Will adapts in his own way just as JT and Owen adapt in their own way – sometimes and sometimes not successfully.

What irritates the critics of The Hurt Locker is that the movie is not overtly pro-war or anti-war concerning the Iraqi conflict.   Whatever else it has been faulted for is mostly trifles.  Yet those that feel the movie glorifies the military and its role in Iraq forget that the movie very adeptly shows what this kind of mission could do to the psyche of the soldiers involved in the combat.  Those feeling that the movie is anti-war in showing the tension that these soldiers endure on a daily basis or in portraying our soldiers in reckless disregard of the safety of others should also remember that the characters portrayed are performing a duty that does result in the saving of at least some lives.  None of which means that the film does not carry with it an important message.  One can still oppose the war while at the same time respect the soldiers that are carrying out their mission.  And one can also respect the troops and support their mission while at the same time not have to believe that every one of the soldiers is a darling little angel.  There are going to be soldiers like Will just as there are soldiers like JT or Owen.

One newspaper columnist from the UK excoriated Ms. Bigelow’s performance at the Oscars for playing it safe and not using the forum to expressly state her opposition to the Iraqi War as Michael Moore did a number of years ago when accepting his Oscar.  If the columnist cares about such public outpourings, more power to him.  I frankly don’t care because I grow tired of being preached to by such individuals that seem more intent on making a name for their own person than truly saying anything relevant.  I have a limited amount of respect for the filmmaking of Michael Moore in that sometimes he shows the actual face of suffering in the documentaries that he presents.  However, he’s also made millions of dollars off of his films in a manner that’s often been far from honest.  If The Hurt Locker is to be criticized for not portraying every detail completely accurately, what is one to say about the maker of such films as Fahrenheit 911 or Sicko?  While The Hurt Locker has one of the lowest box office attendance records for any movie to win the best picture nomination, Michael Moore has sold out movie theatres by using misleading statistics and making claims that cannot be backed up in any way.

The Hurt Locker shows both the good and bad of the Iraqi War in a believable fashion and that’s its chief asset.  Again, I think the story was an honest one in that we see portrayed complete and real people.

May 18, 2010
© Robert S. Miller 2010

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