Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Hurt Locker

(Kathryn Bigelow, US, 2009)

As an action film, THL is ingratiatingly straightforward - the plot is basically a series of bomb-defusing scenes, connected tenuously by a pretty standard tale about the psychic and physical hazards of war. The story isn't particularly insightful or perceptive, but it does offer a modicum of realism - the soldiers exhibit the familiar array of wartime emotions, from scared-shitless to brazen to bored. Subtract the hype, and you've got some passable entertainment, with a few well-executed suspense scenes being the main attraction. THL shouldn't be taken for anything more than that, though, and the attempts to glorify its thematic and psychologial narrowness have only highlighted those limitations. Put it this way - when the film is not only summarized but entirely reducible to its opening epigram (in this case, Chris Hedges' quote that "war is a drug") then you're in trouble.

The actors all acquit themselves competently, although there isn't much for them to do but portray soldiers whose major differentiation is the hardness of their balls: Renner is at the high-carbon steel end of the spectrum, as a stone-cold wire-snipper, with the others less being less nervy but still beyond the norm in terms of stress-endurance. The script is, again, passable. But it's also frustratingly inconsistent - every time the action subsides and the dialogue shifts from the tense bravado of the battlefield, it becomes obvious and rote, e.g. the exchanges between Specialist and the Army Shrink.

The real problem with THL lies in its treatment of the moral and political dimesions intrinsic to any treatment of the Iraq war. My own politics, in their increasing radicalization, make it very difficult to stomach movies about the Iraq war that don't contain the kind of critical perspective that's both obvious and woefully absent from the mainstream: the Iraq war is, in principal, morally wrong and illegal: a war of aggression being carried out against a destitute and mostly unarmed populace. The Hurt Locker, so commonly lauded for it's apparent lack of political posturing, is all the more corrupt for what ultimately amounts to an evasion - of ethics, of morals, and of truth.

(There is, certainly, a dramatic gray area, ripe with the possibility of existential conflict, i.e. the soldiers' attempt to reconcile their need to be soldiers with their need to remain human. That is, the need to simultaneously carry out the mission and not feel like murderers. They are, with some minor exceptions, like anybody else - they don't want to kill people, least of all civilians. But focusing on that solely, without ever casting an eye to the larger evil and injustice that makes such a bind possible, is an unforgivable omission. To use a counterexample - the same kind of institutional vs. human conflict is present in several cop dramas, such as NYPD Blue. But here, the disconnect between the Law and what is Just is a byproduct of a necessary system, or one that's at least provisionally justifiable - we need law enforcement to live in a free society - debatable but generally agreed upon. This isn't true of the Iraq war, which is not only unnecessary but actively malignant. And again, skirting the larger issue, the meta-problem, is not okay.)

And even still - the main conflict doesn't resonate all that deeply. We are reminded that war is hell, but James, the protagonist, never successfully transcends his status as a cipher. There are several indications that James is a decent, empathetic guy beneath the wacky death-wish exterior, but not enough of the story is allocated to his character to make him truly interesting. He's an adrenaline junkie, plain and simple, addicted to the fix of the battlefield and unable (or, more likely, unwilling) to kick the habit. When he rotates back the war at the end of the film, it's meant to be a tragic coda, but at that point I wasn't interested enough in the character to care very much. This is directly related to the parenthetical issue above - the fact that the dice are loaded at all times for these men, their fates costricted by the massive injustice of the war, isn't given enough dramatic weight.

And what about the fact that it seems to have more allegiance to the genre requirements of action movies than that of real human drama? This would be an unfair assessment if the film weren't about Iraq (as in, some movies are action movies, some movies are dramas, and sometimes the twain shall not meet), but it is, and therefore the question is a pressing one: what does it say about the ethical responsibilities of the filmmakers that this presently-unfolding (and entirely changeable) catastrophe is being used as the backdrop for a series of knuckle-biting action set pieces?

I'd venture that one analytical approach to the film would center around it being basically another treatment of the male identity as shaped by the warrior ethos. The film being exclusively male-centered, concerned with rank and relative courage...but I'm too spent to go into that now. And I'm not sure the film warrants it.

To end on a positive note: the most beautiful moments in the film, and the only moments evincing any cinematic sense of poetry (besides the terrible beauty of the sniper scene, which for me was undone by a sense of unreality that I'm not sure was well-founded: would the bomb-squad guys really be such adept snipers? And would even professional snipers be so accurate at that range - doubtful enough with the garngantuan .50 caliber rifle, but really doubtful with an AK-47?) was the film's coda - a striking progression of images, from the supermarket to the leaves falling from the gutter, to the mushrooms in the sink. Where was this gracefulness in the rest of the film?

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