Monday, March 08, 2010

The Hurt Locker

A review of the Oscar winning film.

It's this morning's news that Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker dominated this year's Oscars. This is officially the first time ever a woman won the Best Director Award, beating names such as Quentin Tarantino and James Cameron (who also happens to be Bigelow's ex-husband).

The Hurt Locker is certainly gripping. Right from the opening scenes you're hit by a sense of suspense. The protagonists are soldiers from the US Army's Explosive Ordinance Disposal team in Iraq.

James, the main character (Jeremy Renner), is brought in to replace Sergeant Thompson, killed by a car bomb. The new arrival's ways are not particularly team friendly. He is a bit of a maverick and he likes doing things his own way which leads to several tense moments.

The year is 2004 and pressure is beyond belief. Everytime there is a suspicious object on a road and the wire cutters are out and a bombsuit is worn, the build-up rendered by the film can only give you a faint idea of the tension that really went on.

Similar to 2006's Jarhead, The Hurt Locker is also very good at conveying that draining sense of monotony and the feeling, amongst troops, that the clock is ticking backwards.

To the director's credit, there is no background music and the filming style appears very immediate and realistic.

It's incredibly effective in portraying the soldiers' extreme suspicion that every object, even a kid holding a mobile phone or a pile of bricks can turn into a lethal explosive device anytime. A specific type of fear, stress and mistrust that would drive any human being berserk over a period of time.

However, The Hurt Locker is also extremely overrated.

Not because, like some veterans suggested it was "inaccurate". Films are films and Hollywood's entire history is punctuated with works of fiction clumsily attempting to recreate reality, even when it comes to sensitive and tragic events like war.

The problem is the several moments in which the film slips into those war/action cliches: the up-middle-finger rambo bits when the heroes ignore precautions and official guidelines to "do their own thing" or, even, the geezers-under-stress moments conjured up in that cliched, trademark American way.

More importantly, the narration stalls. We said earlier that The Hurt Locker grips you right from the start, but it's also true that the development is very limited. Sure, it may be be a way of conveying monotony, but it also turns a bit fuzzy after a while. And for all the attempts at character depth, it just doesn't work. By the end it feels quite empty and monodimensional.

Finally, there's the tiny issue of what The Hurt Locker is trying to say. Is it subtly pro-war, like some reviewers suggested?

No doubt, there are enough scenes of carnage and despair to prove that this is no "war-is-glamorous" exercise. War is rough and it's not a videogame and it can fuck you up psychologically: take note, Sun reader.

On the other side, the film seems completely acritical of the reason why those soldiers went there in the first place. I'm not saying it should have turned into a Michael Moore documentary, but there is absolutely nothing - not even a hint or a subtle lead, nothing at all whatsoever - to remind the viewer that the Americans were an unwanted, invading army and were so on the basis of...we still don't know.

If anything, the film ends with Renner telling his son that there's only "one thing" that he knows he loves. Next thing, he's back on another tour of duty in Iraq. Because "war is a drug", of course.

If this is intended to carry an anti-war message, then good old Rambo was a CND propaganda film.


Paul said...

Good review. Spent a fair bit of time over there and tend to shy away from films made about the place.

claude said...

When did you go to Iraq, Paul? Was it at the beginning of the war?

And what's your view on what we hear about inadequate equipment and the underfunding of troops?

Charlie said...

I liked the fact that The Hurt Locker stays away from making any overt political statements. And I don't think it's giving a pro war message, Renner's character is certainly one of a kind, he even drives his colleagues mad. So his decision to return at the end is more to do with him as an individual then any wider message I think. Or something...

It's not a perfect film (the psychiatrist bit you could see coming a mile off) but I found it gripping and nerve-shredding. And in a non-vintage Oscar year I think it deserved the big prizes.

Helen Highwater said...

Better that than Avatar! ;D

Have you seen Bigelow's first film? She did it as her university thesis, basically. The Loveless.

There's a lot of sitting about waiting in that too, but it's so atmospheric. Worthy of note too is that Robert Gordon blew loads of the budget on hiring an orchestra for one of the pieces of music on the soundtrack. Maybe that's why she left music off Hurt Locker! ;D (of course not...!)

the patriot said...

The Hurt Locker is the first movie set against the backdrop of the Iraq War with absolutely no political agenda. The film doesn't care if the invasion and occupation are right or wrong or moral or immoral. All that matters is that the troops are there, they have a job to do, and the most important thing for every man is to get to the end of his tour of duty alive and relatively intact, something that is obviously unbearable to most lefties.

This is an action movie, pure and simple. The Americans and their allies are the "good guys" (relatively speaking, that is) and the insurgents are the "bad guys." It doesn't get any deeper than that. Simply though it's kill or be killed.

Definitely better than that crap Avatar.

Paul said...

Claude, I went to Iraq first in 2003 after the invasion. Later I worked there for the FCO and State department on what was optimistically termed reconstruction. With regards to equipment yes the troops were inadequately equipped. This is not 100% the fault of the government, the Army's high command share some of the blame for the Iraq shortages at least.

Part of the reason for this may IMHO be the legacy of the Balkan operations from the 1990's. In those days things were much easier. All the Army had to do was after an initial aerial campaign was conduct an occupation aimed solely at reconstruction. They never had to fight an insurgency. So large amounts of helicopters and armoured vehicles were not required. In fact the best vehicle for cabbying around Kosovo or Bosnia was the ubiquitous Land Rover.

I think those in power in 2003 thought Southern Iraq would be the same. A relatively easy task with apart from a tad of law and order issues no need to gear up for a prolonged war. That assessment proved optimistic and naive. Regrettably when the Iranians did sponsor a powerful Islamist insurgency in the South, the Brits simply wanted to head home by that stage. Thus surrendering power, to the Sadrists. Still nothing compared to how the centre and north of the country was screwed up. Overall not a particularly glorious episode, the end game a democratic Iraq is good for the region. However the means and certainly the timing are of course open to question.