War has become cliche. It’s a cable news headline, a buzz word attached to the zeitgeist’s cause celebre: drugs, terror, poverty, obesity. At the same time, it’s an economic powerhouse that dwarfs all other human industry, its investors sacredly backed by the full faith of the powers that be. And though its realities are pathologically misperceived, war remains relentlessly woven into the American character, as though each of us is born with a solemn duty to heroically defend our borders, literal or imagined, or at the very least get misty-eyed when our men and women greet us from some distant border during the Super Bowl.
One would assume, then, that as the war movie–already one of Hollywood’s most abused horses–runs dry of Vietnam or WWII storylines and turns to modern conflicts, it would be enduring a nosedive into endless “meaningful salute”-ing, “never leave a man behind”-ing, and “mission accomplished”-ing. Certainly movies like “300” or “Battle: Los Angeles” fit that bill, inventing specious conflicts more or less just to keep warriors ensconced as dimensionless demigods at the top of our society.
Then a film like “The Hurt Locker” comes along and daringly recalculates the war movie formula, both thematically and in its architecture. Its hero is neither a recognizable star nor recognizably heroic. Its plot lacks a definitive bogeyman. Its battles bear no impact–and yield no overt commentary–upon the large scale war. Its scope and its score do not sweep.
Its director is a woman probably once best known for “Point Break” and for being James Cameron’s ex-wife.
Yet “The Hurt Locker” stands as one of the finest dramatizations of the Iraq War and of modern warfare in general, constructed upon the understanding that war is an occupation, both in the sense of it being a job and it being a human fixation since time immemorial. Director Kathryn Bigelow–whose work I believe has always been grossly-underrated–masterfully bridges the gap between the requisite dramatic thrills and tension needed to sustain a feature narrative and the ultimate reality of war–its boredom, its unseen psychological carnage, its lack of sentimentality. She does this by imbuing her main character with the traits of an eccentric genius composer, a sort of chain-smoking, ultra-masculine Wolfie Mozart in camos.
Granted, Army specialists will tell you that star Jeremy Renner’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Sgt. William James is a fantasy, a rule-flaunting cowboy in a job specifically reserved for the most cautious and deliberate of soldiers. To be assured, the true life interminable delicacy of bomb disposal likely would make for pretty boring cinema, despite its inherent drama.
Yet “The Hurt Locker” seemingly endeavors not to be a by-the-numbers understanding of a soldier’s daily life–for that, one should turn to Sebastian Junger’s brilliant documentary “Restrepo”–but rather an examination of how the job of being a soldier in Iraq is worn differently by different men, perhaps because in the vacuum of an obvious patriotic cause each one is forced to derive their own rationalizations for it.
While Sgt. James approaches his role with a matter-of-fact virtuosity and insouciant calm easily mistaken for thrill-seeking, Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty)–mentally shattered by the death of a squadmate that he blames on his hesitation to open fire–seems ill-suited for the demands of war, like a nephew realizing that his sadistic uncle has placed him in a job he simply isn’t qualified or mature enough to handle. Meanwhile, Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is the competent and stable company man who’s just trying to get home for dinner, unimpressed by James’ dangerous stunts but perhaps secretly jealous of the glory he attains for them.
Bigelow juxtaposes the natural tension between the three against a decrepit hellscape, a crumbled nightmare where the surface detritus of society’s collapse need only be scratched to unleash sudden death. A trash heap, a wagon, a rusted car–even a human body; anything and everything needs to be considered an imminent threat. Other than a grueling sniper sequence against faceless insurgents hundreds of yards away, panicked horizon-scanning for tell-tale silhouettes, and a thief-in-the-night abduction, this is a war by-and-large not fought against other people, but against the facility of war itself to be endlessly creative in meting out misery.
As such, “The Hurt Locker” avoids the patriotic, jingoistic, chest-thumping cliches of the war film, opting instead to ponder what it is about war that continues to intoxicate both its participants and its spectators, even as its consequences horrify them in such rudimentary ways.