Saturday, February 27, 2010

For war is a drug

The Hurt Locker (U.S., 2009) directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 131 minutes

Nominated for Nine Oscars: Actor in a Leading Role, Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing, Music (Original Score), Best Picture, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Writing (Original Screenplay)

"The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug." from War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges

Kathryn Bigelow is an amazing director. I can't quite fathom her, she is such an anomaly in a male-dominated sphere and genre (big-time Hollywood directors and action films to be specific). Movie star good looks, brains and guts - a real triple threat.

The film is set in Iraq in 2004. We see an aspect of the war that I would vouch not many of us have exposure to or knowledge of.

Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) is the team leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit replacing a Staff Sergeant very recently blown apart by a remote-controlled improvised explosive device (IED) in Baghdad. James is a bit of wild card with a fearless, unorthodox approach which rattles his team members Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). Their jobs are to communicate with James via radio and provide him with cover while he examines the IEDs and disarms them. On his very first mission, he approaches a suspected IED without first sending in the bomb disposal robot.

Renner exhibits such a strange quality here as an actor ... I can't quite put my finger on it but it is very effective in this role. The self absorption of the mentally ill? Someone who is estranged from his true feelings? For some it might be construed as heroic, here it strikes the viewer as illness. It's as if he is not quite wholly with us.

Back at his home base, James befriends a local Iraqi boy nicknamed "Beckham" who sells bootlegged DVDs to James. The dynamic between the entrepreneurial boy with the cocky attitude and name and the lonely soldier is tender and believable. James, married and with a young child back home, seems to be lacking in human companionship and connection with his fellow officers. He is oddly disassociated from his team who must be thinking he is either insanely brave or has a death wish. Either way, he must be perceived as a dangerous liability for young soldiers just trying to finish their tour of duty without getting blown up. Subsequent missions with similar antics unnerve his team and the tension mounts between the three.

When Eldridge is subsequently hurt due to what is perceived as an error in judgment by James, the men accuse him of needing an "adrenaline fix" and putting them all in danger.

During one mission, James happens upon the corpse of a young boy who, though disfigured by the carnage, he suspects is Beckham but this is unclear. An unexploded bomb had been implanted in the boy. James furiously confronts the merchant that Beckham worked for demanding that the man drive him to Beckham's house so that he can confront whomever had done this. It is unclear if James has been deliberately mislead or tricked as he encounters an Iraqi professor in the house who may or may not know who Beckham is or what happened to him. Pathetically, James is chased out of the house by the man's wife, and he gets back into his home base with the aid of a sympathetic guard by lying and saying that he was at a bordello.

This encounter rings with meaning ... the good-hearted American, self righteous and brave, stumbling into a situation without information and then confronted with the complex and bizarre truth of being unable to hold anybody accountable in this strange and troubling environment. What a perfect metaphor for US involvement in Iraq. Who does he vent his fury on - an educated man who likely has nothing to do with the carnage and violence around him.

Sometime shortly afterwards, James is shocked to be approached by the very much alive Beckham. The boy tries to interact normally with James (having no idea that James thought him dead) but James appears furious and refuses to speak to the boy.

Mark Boal, the screenwriter and journalist, was embedded with the EOD in Iraq in 2004. The script is, as they say "inspired by real events". The pace of the film seems to reflect real life in war: long patches of boredom and loneliness punctuated by horrific circumstances and events. One can almost understand the desire to court danger if only to relieve the tedium of waiting for something to happen. Boal had also written an article called "Death and Dishonour", upon which the Paul Haggis film In the Valley of Elah was based (also reviewed here).

Shortly before the end of their tour of duty, James and Sanborn are called to intervene in a situation where an Iraqi has been forced to enter a military checkpoint wearing a time-bomb strapped to his chest. Despite his best efforts James can do nothing and the bomb explodes, nearly killing James as well. Sanborn soon breaks down and confesses that he can't take much more of this and is anxious to go home. James exhibits no such reservations.

When James returns home to his wife and child two days later, civilian life brings new challenges, new forms of tedium. Shopping for cereal, caring for one's son, living a life of normalcy. But apparently that is no longer enough. James soon tires of civilian life.

In the last scene, we see James back in Iraq, serving another year as part of an EOD team with Delta Company. And he looks mighty happy to be there too.

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