Oscar Grouching #2: The Hurt Locker

So, I am persistently continuing this series of posts about this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. I think it’s a very interesting – and for that matter, historic – race, as I detailed in the previous post. And, as evidenced by the film I’m about to discuss, it stands to say a lot about the current state of the American consciousness. This film, which ties Avatar with its 9 nominations, is Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. By way of introduction, here’s what I had to say about it in my recent article on this year’s Oscars:

“But then, [with regard to Avatar‘s chances] you have to consider the ex-wife factor, because Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is rampaging through awards season like a humvee filled with soldiers who specialize in defusing bombs. Like Avatar, The Hurt Locker is about conflicted soldiers, but these ones – led by Best Actor nominee Jeremy Renner – don’t fall easily into character types. Instead, they’re just ordinary guys in an extraordinary, very dangerous situation from which they’re unable, or maybe even unwilling, to escape. Capturing the addictive trauma of war with its journalistic style, The Hurt Locker is a difficult and deserving movie. It immerses the viewer so long in the grit and gunfire of Iraq that the shops and homes of suburban America look as alien as the floating mountains of Pandora.”

I could look at The Hurt Locker and its role in this contest from a lot of angles. It’s a damn multifaceted film. First of all, let’s think about the impressive woman behind it, Kathryn Bigelow. This is the only one of her film’s I’ve seen, though I’ve long yearned to see her 1995 dystopian sci-fi thriller Strange Days. Since the ’80s, she’s specialized in intense genre movies, from the vampire western Near Dark to the more standard action movies Blue Steel and Point Break. She’s been designated an auteur of sorts, and one of these days I’d like to look deeper into her work. She is also James Cameron’s ex-wife (1989-1991), throwing a very fun wrinkle into the mix. They seem amicable, but it’s very fun to have such a close rivalry – over both Best Picture and Director – between two people with such a once-strong bond. Gives some real drama to the Oscars, don’t you think?

But personal life aside, Bigelow is a formidable woman, at least judging from her most recent film. It smashes any silly preconceptions that great female filmmakers automatically have to make films about women’s issues. The Hurt Locker is an well-structured, unrelenting time bomb of a movie, whose only significant female character only appears for a few minutes at the end. The lack of obvious feminist discourse in Bigelow’s filmography reminds me of another important female director, Ida Lupino, the only film by whom I’ve seen has been The Hitch-Hiker. It’s a brutal little noir with no feminist subtext in sight – like The Hurt Locker, it’s about the relationship between three men trapped together in stressful circumstances. Lupino’s never really gotten her due; maybe the Bigelow’s sudden success will cause her to be rediscovered? I can only hope.

The point is that Kathryn Bigelow is a very rare animal and a very talented director who will hopefully open the floodgates for more acceptance of female directors. It’s so great to see a group of nominated directors who aren’t totally pale and male; a quick glance shows that the last variations in race or sex were Alejandro Iñárritu, nominated for Babel (2006), and Ang Lee, the winner for Brokeback Mountain (2005). Historically, the Academy likes their directors white and penis-having, trends that are temporarily halted by Bigelow and Precious‘s gay black director Lee Daniels. More on him later, more about The Hurt Locker now.

It’s a film that scores the tricky feat of being both extremely topical and universally applicable. Superficially, it’s about the ongoing Iraq War, based directly on Oscar-nominated screenwriter Mark Boal’s experiences while embedded there. This is pretty damn timely, especially considering that Apocalypse Now wasn’t released until four years after the Vietnam War had officially ended. This timeliness is both a curse and a blessing: The Hurt Locker pays absolutely no heed to the historical context or consequences of the war, but this gives it a feeling of immediacy; it’s not about the war so much as the soldiers, who have to live from skirmish to skirmish. Whereas Apocalypse Now was all about deconstructing the war’s accumulated mythologies, The Hurt Locker regards Iraq as a work-in-progress, and focuses unblinkingly on a specific unit.

Bravo Company’s bomb disposal unit consists of three men: the leader Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), and his subordinates Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). As I observed in my article, one beautiful element of this film is the way they’re characterized. Avatar dealt in the language of total moral legibility, where every character can be categorized as “good” or “bad” based on the first glimpse. The Hurt Locker doesn’t really provide portentous snippets of dialogue as signposts for who we’re supposed to love and hate. All we’ve got is three flawed and confused men. James makes frequent poor decisions of which Sanborn, with frustration, takes note, and tensions run high both as a result of his behavior and the possibility of an explosion at any given second. Eldridge usually watches the proceedings with quiet interest, nodding along with Sanborn’s grievances but saving his real feelings for his last scene in the film.

If I haven’t made it clear from all that, this is a very different kind of war movie. It’s character-driven and episodic, following the unit from one potential bomb site to another; the repetition almost leads to feelings of deja vu and an uncertainty of where, exactly, the movie is going. By the time we come to the last shot, which takes every badass image of warfare from recent cinematic memory and turns it on its head, we realize that we haven’t been following a narrative arc, but an emotional arc within James’s psyche. Bravo Company isn’t trying to “take the anthill,” as Adolphe Menjou would’ve said in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. We have no linear progression to an achievable goal. The film’s structure resembles that of a video game (like, say, Gears of War, which Eldridge is seen playing). It doesn’t end. It just circles back around to the next level. The influence of video games has been mentioned in numerous discussions of The Hurt Locker, and it’s very visible – this is a truly 21st century war movie, in its style and story.

The gaming aspect of the film’s visuals also connects to a common criticism, which is that The Hurt Locker functions more or less as a two-hour advertisement for the thrill and intensity of military service. I’m not saying that this point has no validity, but I do think that both the articles I link to are somewhat wrong-headed in their readings of the film. It’s always funny, with a work as ideologically ambiguous as this, how critics tend to either decry it as jingoistic and hawkish, claiming that it only shows the “fun” side of war, or else condemn it as anti-American for daring to show the inner strife of combatants.

The truth is more difficult than that, because The Hurt Locker is hardly unassailable in its politics, but neither is it as unequivocal in its presentation of war-as-a-game as some would have you believe. The second of the articles I linked to, Tara McKelvey’s “The Hurt Locker as Propaganda,” describes James’s brief furlough home during the last portion of the film as “a dull, dreary world,” complete with a cereal aisle that ostensibly signifies “American consumerism gone amuck”; it adds that upon his return to Iraq, James is “filled with a sense of purpose, courage, and even nobility that does not exist in suburban America”.

While this isn’t strictly false, it does force The Hurt Locker into a dualistic box where it doesn’t belong. Yes, suburban America looks dull and dreary when compared to the thrilling scenes of war that preceded it, but that’s not because of some inherent superiority of the former. It is, as McKelvey observes, all about the contrast; the film’s real point is that after so much time becoming acclimated to the stresses of warfare, James can’t perceive his home life in the same way. In this department, The Hurt Locker resembles Apocalypse Now, wherein the “wisdom” that Colonel Kurtz reaches through the horrors of war makes him retreat into the jungle while his family waits back home. The moral isn’t “Join the military – it’s so much more fun than home”; it’s “Join the military and you’ll become unable to enjoy being home.”

The Hurt Locker, after all, is a film with a definite thesis, its first onscreen image: “war is a drug.” The point of a drug is that the addict craves more, and that all other pleasures in life are diminished until the drug becomes an all-consuming means and end. (Look at Trainspotting, where the choice is between “life” and heroin.) When James goes home, he isn’t disappointed by the rampant consumerism or the tedium of tearing leaves out of gutters. He’s in withdrawal, totally incapable of relating to family anymore, and it’s utterly tragic. The next and last scene, with James suited up and strutting down a Baghdad street, reads almost as a parody of army propaganda. It’s anything but noble.

This is a talented man, the best at what he does, who’s been reduced to a junkie, and by the end of the film, he is the suit. He’s gone from a full human being to a video game character, compelled to cycle through until he runs out of lives. Yes, The Hurt Locker viscerally and even quasi-sexually depicts the dismantling of bomb after bomb, and this yields several scenes’ worth of decidedly pleasurable cinema. But this is part and parcel with any war movie, so much so that François Truffaut once commented that no movie is truly anti-war, since they’ll always communicate some fun, thrilling aspect of war. Just look at Apocalypse Now‘s helicopter attack to the tune of “The Ride of the Valkyries,” which is the textbook illustration of this effect.

But Bigelow and Boal don’t just passively accept this. They cleverly and insistently undermine it. This is a very smart war movie, and far from being a recruitment ad. I don’t know if it’s the best movie of 2009 – I’ll have more to say about that later – but I am glad to see all the critical approval. Unlike Avatar, it doesn’t just let the audience sit back, identify with a protagonist, and then applaud themselves for being such wonderful people. If we see ourselves in James, Sanborn, and Eldridge, we have some hard questions to confront. That Iraqi’s just filming you dismantling the bomb, after all. Would you be justified in shooting him? And James’s climactic attempt to free an innocent man just throws in an extra layer of difficulty.

I think it’ll take some time to figure out what The Hurt Locker‘s front-runner status really says about America/Hollywood’s willingness to talk about and understand the Iraq War, but love it or hate it, it’s out there. I also suspect that the close proximity between the film’s release and the start of the war has a lot to do with its lack of a clear political stance, and that murkiness in turn has probably buoyed its popularity. As the criticisms show, you can read a lot into this movie based on your own inclinations. When faced with populist bullshit like Avatar and brilliant, original filmmaking like The Hurt Locker, despite its few flaws, I’ll take The Hurt Locker every time.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema, Politics

2 responses to “Oscar Grouching #2: The Hurt Locker

  1. Great review. Your line “By the time we come to the last shot, which takes every badass image of warfare from recent cinematic memory and turns it on its head, we realize that we haven’t been following a narrative arc, but an emotional arc within James’s psyche” succinctly phrases something I was trying to get it in my own review – the way we slowly are drawn towards James’ point of view (from initially seeing him as a loose cannon, much like Sanborne – after all we meet him through the unit’s eyes not through his own) until we’re finally sucked into it like a vortex. It’s a great ending – perfectly ironic and ambivalent precisely because it’s NOT on the surface (only the context makes it so).

    Great contrast to Avatar too. I enjoyed the 3-D experience but it was such ideological bullshit – a pompous rich guy lording it over the grunts and identifying with a made-up image of “indigenous” tribes. Bob Clark, over at Wonders in the Dark, has made some great points about this among them that the Na’vi fit into their environment like a hand in a glove, a totally pain-free “have your green cake and eat it too” conception of both “primitive culture” (where, as Bob points out, natives had to struggle with often harsh environments) and environmentalism. Don’t get me wrong – a film’s politics don’t determine its greatness in my eyes; heck, I think Birth of a Nation is a masterpiece. But Avatar’s hypocrisy does rankle and it’s worth taking to task when so many seem to take its surface ideology at face value (see the Adbusters blurb I quoted in my review).

    Great stuff, I’ll read the Avatar review next.

    • I was looking over your piece on The Hurt Locker, and I think in the end the movie accomplishes some very neat and tricky balancing acts. It’s a psychological war movie that CAN be viewed as action-oriented; it’s a critique of one man and his relationship to war that can be read according to the viewer’s political leanings, but leaves ideological hints like bread crumbs. I’m still not sure if this makes it “great,” but at least it makes it universally accessible enough to win Best Picture, so that counts for something. I’ll definitely be curious how we come to regard The Hurt Locker a decade from now, and I won’t be surprised if it’s well-remembered.

      Of course Avatar will be remembered, but I doubt it’ll be seen as a masterpiece like The Hurt Locker might, or a milestone of film history. My guess is more like Star Wars for the 21st century. And like Star Wars, they better keep re-releasing it with full 3D or else it’ll be a memory that belongs to this era alone. I didn’t see that Coke commercial, but on no level does it surprise me: I remember, before the movie was released, seeing ads for the McDonald’s tie-in toys that showed Happy Meals summoning the jungles of Pandora, too!

      I had a friend who claimed that Avatar was cleverly sneaking anti-imperialist discourses into the mainstream, but the opposite seems to be the case – the anti-imperialism is the cover story over a hugely capitalist foundation. I think any little ideological gain the film makes is pretty much negated by the conditions of its productions and reception, if not in the compromises within the story itself. At least by having a very subtle, multifaceted message, The Hurt Locker is able to be honest with itself.

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