Friday, November 12, 2010

The Hurt Locker

Directors of war films used to have to guard against the overwhelming temptation to abandon the individual's perspective and give us a bird's-eye view of the battlefield instead - with hundreds of men all going about the business of killing one another. At least since the Vietnam war, war films no longer feature pitched battle scenes involving large groups of men in a fixed location. They have been forced, for the simple sake of being true to the experience, to limit their attention to skirmishes, to small groups of men confronting one another in unlikely places like jungles, deserts, or even city streets. While the personal element has increased in films, armed conflict itself has become a more confused, unjustifiable exercise.

Winner of six Academy Awards last March, including Best Picture, The Hurt Locker is not half bad. It is remarkable for its concentration on its subject - an explosive ordinance disposal team in the thick of the latest war in Iraq. I had to take their tactics, which make up much of the film's action, on trust - despite the fact that, mutatis mutandis, I was a combat arms-trained soldier myself. What I found most interesting was the presence of everyday Iraqis in the film - standing around watching the soldiers doing their job. Which ones are their enemies and which their friends becomes an often startling problem for the soldiers closely followed throughout the film.

There is an otherwise effective scene in which these soldiers encounter some British mercenaries and become engaged by Iraqi snipers a great distance from them. In one shot, the director (Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar) indulges in some trickery when she shows us the magnified eye of a sniper as seen through the wrong end of his telescopic sight. I have seen this trick shot in several films lately, but it is, of course, a deliberate fake. As any child can tell you, if you were to look through the wrong end of a telescope, objects would be considerably reduced in size rather than magnified.

But this is the whole problem with Bigelow's film. It spends so little time dealing with the soldiers in garrison, off duty, that we have insufficient time to discover just who they really are or what, if anything, they are making of their close encounters with death. A political agenda - in place of a message - is driven home in the film's last scenes, but it fails to provide us with any sense of where we have just been or where we are going next.

When I first saw Jeremy Renner in that Jesse James film a few years ago, I mistook him for one of the Belushi brothers. He has a lived-in face that has been lacking in American films for awhile. It was a little of a surprise to see Ralph Fiennes in the scene with the British mercenaries, but he is killed off within minutes by a well-placed sniper bullet. The cinematography, by Barry Ackroyd (who did a lot of work with Ken Loach), has that annoying, television-influenced nervousness that has become de rigeur in action films lately. It must eliminate a lot of unnecessary set-ups and simplify the actors' blocking, but it doesn't add up to much. Shot in Jordan, the locations are used sparingly but quite effectively.

When our EOD team goes off the map to inflict a little revenge on some suspected insurgents near the film's conclusion, the film, like our soldiers, gets lost in a labyrinth of alleys and doorways, each one holding potentially lethal hazards. If the best film metaphor for the Vietnam war was the Russian roulette game created for The Deer Hunter, I suppose that the nightmare of soldiers running through the nighttime streets of an Iraqi city in The Hurt Locker, with Iraqis in every doorway, on every corner - each one a potential enemy - might as well stand as a working metaphor for "Shock and Awe." Still, I wonder what a friend of mine who committed suicide a few months after his return from Iraq in 2005 would've thought of it.

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