James Kaelan will have an essay about the Iraq War Film Renaissance over at The Millions next week. In celebration of this year’s crop, Flatmancrooked is re-running his review of The Hurt Locker, the film that started the trend.
Since it germinated in earnest four years ago, the crop of Afghanistan and Iraq films has been anemic. Reading the reviews, in most cases, is more entertaining than watching the films themselves. Take for instance the hastily braided Lions for Lambs by Robert Redford, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise. It has three fifths the narrative breadth of Alejandro Iñárritu’s Babel. But whereas Iñarritu ties his storylines together with raw emotion, Redford lashes his together with wonkishness. This comes from Anthony Lane’s review of Lions in the New Yorker:
“The three stories are intercut throughout the film, to lend it at least the illusion of momentum. Sadly, unless you are Jean-Luc Godard, the sight of your characters discussing the political ethics of their own actions is unlikely to ravish the eye, and Lions for Lambs is most charitably described as Ibsen with helicopters. It winces with liberal self-chastisement: Redford is surely smart enough to realize, as the professor turns to ire on those who merely chatter while Rome burns, that his movie is itself no better, or more morally effective, than high-concept Hollywood fiddling.”
Last year the indomitable men behind The Wire—David Simon and Ed Burns—managed to put together something of a masterpiece on the invasion of Iraq for HBO. But Generation Kill was still a political film. One came away after eight hours feeling the war was a horrendous mistake and that the incursion wasn’t as simple as an earthquake; after we’d sacked the cities, we couldn’t just fix the roads and bridges. Generation Kill is an indictment of the Bush Administration, just as The Wire is an indictment of Baltimore’s bureaucracies. In both series there are good men and women doing bad things and achieving dismal results.
The Hurt Locker is another sort of film. It follows the fate of three soldiers in Iraq charged with disarming IEDs in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) replaces Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) after Thompson is killed in the line of duty. James is as unconcerned with danger as James Bond is with venereal disease, and he approaches his work with the spiritual calm of a man raking a rock garden. What is immediately evident watching The Hurt Locker is that the film is existential rather than polemical. The soldiers aren’t interested in why they’re in country. The other men on James’ team—Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are concerned only with surviving till they leave. James, on the other hand, seems captivated by his work and pursues it with the Platonic conviction that all labor is ethically sound if done excellently.
For someone opposed to the war from the first rumors, this film served as a revelation. There is nothing romantic about The Hurt Locker. It is not a sentimental portrait of brotherhood (the soldiers bond by drinking and punching each other in the stomach). And yet somewhere within the first half hour I found myself wishing I were with them in the desert. The soldiers’ work is arduous, to say nothing of deadly, but James’ approach to defusing his bombs is elegantly simple. He appears at peace working, and that calm amidst one of the tensest dramas in recent film history is intoxicating. He is not so different from the poet striving to write a clear image.
There are minor flaws, of course. We’re so prepared for the films’ first explosion that when the bomb does go off, the surprise is no greater than if we’d seen a controlled building demolition. It produces none of the shock, for instance, one feels in the opening minutes of Children of Men, when the sudden blast interrupts an otherwise peaceful London street. Alfonso Cuarón’s violence conveys the emotion of terrorism, whereas Kathryn Bigelow’s violence, at least in the beginning, celebrates the science. But Bigelow is certainly at her career best, here. The camerawork throughout is redolent of Paul Greengrass’ United 93—hand-held, but to a specific end. Unlike César Charlone’s photography in The Constant Gardener, where he shook the camera even at the dinner table, the look of The Hurt Locker is both effectively intimate and unsettling. This is not a film of pretty photographs, nor should it be.
I’m not the first to predict that people will study The Hurt Locker in twenty years for clues to the nature of the Iraq War, but I’d like to add my endorsement. This film is a document rather than a lesson. By avoiding the political fray, it gives viewers insight, regardless of perspective, into the objective circumstances of the conflict. The Hurt Locker doesn’t ask whether we made the right decision going into Baghdad, and yet it doesn’t skirt the subject. Rather it proves how impertinent such a question is to the soldiers risking their lives. On a personal level, war is a series of tasks one tries to complete alive. Anything beyond that is a distraction.
By James Kaelan