A Lust for War
U.S. Army Staff Sergeant William James lights a cigarette after he disarms a bomb: being that close to death and cheating it once again gets him off with such an adrenaline fix that only an after-sex-esque smoke feels like the right thing. War is hell? Hell, war is a rush, man.
The magnificently ironic thing about Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker — an over-the-shoulder look at a month in the life and work of a bomb disposal expert in Baghdad in the summer of 2004 — is that it doesn’t give us a rush. As cool and unflappable as its decidedly antiheroic protagonist, this intense, intimate portrait of the modern battlefield — or lack thereof — is riveting but not “exciting,” not in the sense that action movies have taught us to get turned on by the foreplay of countdowns and the climax of explosions. What makes Locker a masterpiece of the action film, of the war film, of the male-buddy film is not that Bigelow found something new to say via the pornography of violence that typifies the genres, but that she found something new to say in the quiet motives behind the men who inhabit these stories and in the surprising stillnesses between the explosions.
Not that this is not an action film. There is enormous suspense in those motives and those stillnesses, and in how the film pushes James harder and harder, dropping him into tougher and tougher situations to see when he’ll crack… or if he will at all. We see James’s recklessness from the moment we meet him, when he defies standard procedure in more ways than one during his first trip out into the lively rubble of Baghdad to take on what may be a roadside bomb (it is). As James, Jeremy Renner (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 28 Weeks Later) — who hasn’t been a household name but should be after this — is exquisitely all id, oozing in an unforgettably enticing way the contradictions of rash impulsiveness and dedicated professionalism coming together in a job that just about demands such a paradox. We don’t exactly embrace him, but we are fascinated by him. His James is a man who can say, in all honesty and with complete intellectual appreciation (and without us thinking the worse of him for it): “This guy was good — I like him,” of the bomber whose dead-man switch he’s kept in his treasure chest of “signatures,” the mechanical fingerprints bombmakers invariably leave on their work and James cannot help but collect. But when James and his team — Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie: Notorious, Eagle Eye) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty: I Know Who Killed Me, We Are Marshall) — stumble across a bomb factory and make the terrible discovery of a new kind of bomb-delivery system, you can’t help but wonder, So, does James like this guy?
And not that there aren’t action-film and war-film and buddy-film clichés galore… though they’re present only to be smashed. Big-name actors — Ralph Fiennes (The Reader, The Duchess), Guy Pearce (The Road, Traitor), David Morse (Disturbia, 16 Blocks) — appear and disappear almost instantly afterward. The “so, you got a girl back home?” conversation occurs only so that James can admit — or not, actually, but we know what he’s thinking — that he actually prefers Iraq to being home with her. The buddy stuff is unexpectedly tender, at times — the bit with the juice packet is a little bit of cinematic verve. And how Bigelow turns “the shootout” on its head is extraordinary, rendering it long and excruciatingly patient, finding new suspense in, incongruously, inaction.
Entirely missing from The Hurt Locker? Any of that phony red-wire/blue-wire nonsense.
Oh, that bomber who invented a new way to delivery bombs? We can see that James most certainly doesn’t like him, and where this pushes James becomes a surprisingly apt metaphor for the American invasion of Iraq in the first place. But Locker is mostly apolitical in its depiction of modern urban warfare, where every civilian is a potential enemy and every streetcorner a potential firefight. (It easy to imagine that ten years from now we may well look back at this and say, “Huh, that could have been Yemen,” or Venezuela, or wherever the hell we end up in a bad situation next.) Even if it’s mindsets like James’s that are responsible for the whole mess in the first place. For James is useless — or, at least, he believes he is — except at war.
Locker isn’t meant to be a documentary, however — never mind that screenwriter Mark Boal (In the Valley of Elah) was embedded with a bomb disposal squad in Iraq, or that cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (Battle in Seattle, United 93) and Bigelow (Strange Days, Near Dark) herself shot is all quick and dirty, handheld and multicamera, or that Bigelow chose to film so close to the battlefields of Iraq (in Jordan) that refugees and former American prisoners of war appear as extras. The film isn’t meant to suggest that all soldiers are adrenaline junkies. It’s a larger metaphor for what takes us to war in the first place, sometimes, and what keeps us going back for more. It could also be taken as a metaphor for what we love about the typical action movie, too, and what keeps us coming back for more. Except, of course, that action movies don’t get real people killed. If only we could satisfy our collective adrenaline jones with movies alone, we’d be a lot better off.
Oscars Best Picture 2009