Monday, July 20, 2009
Review: The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow does not care what you think.
She is not interested in your flag-waving git-r-done jingoism, and she is not interested in your left-wing apologist psychobabble. What Kathryn Bigelow is interested in is delivering one of the greatest war films ever made. And with The Hurt Locker, she has succeeded.
Most people agree that World War II was the apex of American heroism. At no other time in human history has the USA been held in such high esteem by its allies. As such, films depicting American deployment, combat, and experience in Nazi-occupied France all have the saccharine, yet historically accurate, undercurrent of unshakable bravery amongst its American protagonists.
Thirty years later, America was embroiled in the Vietnam War, a warped return to the battlefield that seemed to turn World War II's noble conquest of evil inside out. Clean-cut PFC Johnny from Iowa City didn't want to serve his country and make it home to his young wife anymore; he wanted to make Charlie bleed and get laid and smoke his painful memories of home away. Americans, just a generation removed from their collective identity as the world's saviors, were killing innocent people, killing women, killing children, killing their own college students in Ohio. As before, the American public educated itself of its country's servicemen through Hollywood, but now, the images were darker, bleaker, angrier. The Thousand-Yard Stare of Colonel Nicholson's heroic lads gave way to Travis Bickle's sociopathic monologue in front of his mirror.
Today, the world--with America invariably entrenched within it--is at war once more. And, as before, the mood has shifted with the passage of time. The recurring theme of the Iraq War, begun in March 2003, is the ebb and flow of emotion and trust. The physical threat to the American soldier is greater than ever--there is no gentleman's agreement between combatants on the battlefield--and the downtime is more customizable than ever. GIs can have protein powder shipped to their bunks, play Xbox 360 off-shift, call their wives at any time. There is no particular routine or arrangement or schedule to military life in the Middle East. And with this new purgatory of the constant switch between duty and simple self-preservation has arisen a new kind of soldier, a new kind of man.
That man is Staff Sergeant William James, our rapscallion hero in The Hurt Locker. He is not charming, he is not particularly handsome, he does not have a snaketongued quip always at the ready. He is a dude, a dude who drinks and swears and defuses bombs, because it's all he's got, dude man. James has a wife and son thousands of miles away, but we do not care about them, because he does not care about them. The compound simplicity and gripping terror that comprise James' life in Iraq also comprise our film experience. The Hurt Locker has two settings: on and off. Movies do not work this way. But this one does, and flawlessly.
The plot of The Hurt Locker revolves around the aforementioned Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner) and his three-man Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit during their final 30 days in the stir. James has only just arrived to the unit, and his unorthodox and extremely dangerous style immediately puts him at odds with his two subordinates, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and the increasingly distraught Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty).
There are more than three people in this film, but you will not be blamed if you only pay attention to Renner. It is difficult to imagine a performance more challenging than one which requires the actor to convey complete sincerity in his boredom and angst. We rightfully praise actors who take on the "difficult" roles--Harvey Milk, Idi Amin, Andrew Beckett--but Renner's task is equally as tall, for nothing--not a covertly wired stash of six IEDs, not a stone-faced suicide bomber, not an unseen sniper--fazes him. Not because he is a one dimensional action hero, like Rambo or the Terminator, but because he is caught somewhere between apathy and insanity. Maybe he doesn't care if he lives or dies; maybe he is just as frightened as Eldridge. He simply has his game face on at all times because he can't afford to remove it, and even if he could, it's likely he's forgotten how to do so. It's truly a brilliant, understated performance that cannot receive enough praise.
The Hurt Locker would be nothing without its sensory accomplishments. You can include all the expository dialogue and giggling drunken bromance you want, but if you make a movie about defusing homemade bombs and you can't pull off a credible explosion, well, you have yourself a worthless film. Fortunately, director Bigelow and English cinematographer Barry Ackroyd beautifully present a dusty land of mistrust and danger. In an filmmaking era in which the mantra seems increasingly to be "make it grittier," Bigelow and Ackroyd have done a simply masterful job of balancing the heat, sand, and wind with the audience's need to actually see what is taking place on screen.
Do not be confused: The Hurt Locker can stand shoulder to shoulder with the grittiest of films. But it doesn't do so at the expense of its stark, exceptional imagery. It won't make you want to visit Baghdad anytime soon, but the photography is beautiful nonetheless. Ackroyd is on an impressive streak, having helmed cinematography duties on the Oscar-nominated United 93 and the Irish independent film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which won the Palme d'Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Though Bigelow employs a Canon Phantom HD for the film's handful of slow-motion shots, the bulk of The Hurt Locker was shot on 16 mm Fuji Eterna 250D film stock, which was popular about 25 years ago, through Aaton A-Minima cameras--also about a quarter-century past their peak usage. This unheralded choice of equipment makes a huge difference; the film is crisp and frenetic, like so many modern nailbiters shot on video, but still looks like it belongs on a 30-foot screen.
The lasting image of The Hurt Locker, perhaps, is that of James' bomb disposal suit; it is enormous, bulky, hot, and green; it requires three men just to suit James up; when the camera is inside it, you can hear James breathing heavily, struggling to take his next lumbering step. There is nothing manly or enviable about this suit. Your son will not want an action figure of this suit. Much like that suit is the war which necessitates its use. The camera flits over dead-eyed locals weary of the American occupation of their home and over Eldridge's panicked face as he desperately tries to clean blood off of his rifle's bullets so that he can reload in the middle of a firefight. The Hurt Locker is not a depiction of heroism or cowardice, of nobility or shame. It does not ask its audience to reevaluate its reception of the American military's presence in Iraq. It offers no one dimensional characterizations of villains or champions of justice. It simply invites us to witness and experience the harrowing, exhausting, terrifying, yet encompassingly simple existence of the new American soldier. And that experience just so happens to be one of the greatest films you will ever see.