Saturday, July 25, 2009
The Hurt Locker - A World of Hurt in a World of Madness
I have enjoyed aspects of all the post-9/11 films depicting U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq (yes, all, including Rendition) though most of them have been disappointing in some way, and I can’t help feeling the same way about Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, a film that follows the perilous and psychologically taxing experiences of three members of an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Demolition) team in Baghdad. The film has definite strengths, but something was missing for me.
The film’s best strength is its depiction of the madness of the mess in U.S.-occupied Iraq. As presented in the film, Baghdad is a nut house. A reluctant suicide bomber is padlocked into a vest of plastic explosives. A charge is hidden in a dead boy’s stomach. Defusing unexploded bombs in wartime London must have been pretty hairy, but imagine trying to defuse a bomb most likely hooked to a cell phone-activated detonator while Iraqi civilians stand watching as casually as people watching workers in a construction site. Somebody even videotapes them! A shopkeeper is on his cell phone. Who the fuck do you shoot? In a most telling scene, a taxi driver stops beyond a roadblock. He seems stunned – or stubbornly rebellious in a city gone mad – and doesn’t back up even at gunpoint.
Another strength is the film’s narrow focus on the three members of the bomb team. Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), distraught over the death of his previous technician (Guy Pearce), plays by the book. Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is jittery and uncertain; what’s he a specialist at? Both of them are perplexed by the seemingly suicidal behavior of Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), who throws off his headset during a tense situation and inexplicably obscures his approach to a bomb with a smoke grenade. He keeps a box filled with various detonation devices he has collected from his experiences. He seems to thrive on the adrenaline rush of extreme peril. At first, there is division amidst the threesome. Then we see a developing camaraderie: James talks his friends through a dangerous sniper standoff in the desert, encourages Sanborn to drink a juice bag so he won’t pass out in the heat, and incites Eldridge to make a crucial decision. Unfortunately, a surprising cameo by Ralph Fiennes as an undercover operative starts the sequence out like a generic shoot-‘em-up though things get more serious when Fiennes’s character is out of the way.
Unfortunately, only briefly, the film does a wonderful job of depicting the culture shock and alienation any veteran of the experience in Iraq must feel back in the States. We see James perplexed before the vast varieties of choices in a supermarket cereal aisle that must seem to him like something on an alien planet. Then we see him helping his wife in the kitchen, washing mushrooms as he describes a horrid explosion. Not the best thing to bring home with you.
The film’s final scene – which in many ways is its climax – must have seemed brilliant on paper. Throughout the film we have seen how many days are left on the bomb team’s rotation, and the whole film sets up how harrowing explosive ordnance demolition is – throw in all the surrounding madness of Iraq – and then we see James stepping off a helicopter and plodding yet again toward an IED, as we read that he has 365 days left in his duty rotation. Oh, yeah, 365 days! Wow! (Good thing I didn't miss the superscript.) Knowing all that has gone before, this moment should have delivered more impact, but it doesn’t. It’s just a shot. I’m just not worried about James. He’s done wild things before – ripping through a burned-out car to find an elusive detonator (which EOD specialists say they would never do) – but nothing’s happened to him, and I don’t feel anything will, nor do I feel that attached to him.
Movie over – and I felt disappointed; I wanted more – of something. I liked the film's parts, but not its whole. Some of the bomb-defusing episodes are tense; others seem to suffer from poor timing and loose editing. In addition, all James’s tugging on wires to find detonating devices doesn’t work to show me his recklessness – because I don’t believe it’s possible. (In contrast, in Battle for Haditha, a cell-phone-rigged detonator seems to be a much more volatile thing.) As for the shaky-camera style, it does absolutely nothing to make me feel like I am there in the frenzy. Now, whenever I see that style on screen, it just distances me. Another silliness, along with Fiennes’s action hero appearance, is the role of Cambridge (Christian Camargo), the army psychologist. Could anyone be that ridiculous at communicating with civilians at an unexploded bomb site? Could it be any more obvious that he’s going to get blown to bits? As for Renner as James, he is excellent – perhaps. For all of Bigelow’s tight focus on the three-man team, I don’t know that much about him, and I don’t feel what he feels when he plods once again toward yet another IED – but perhaps part of the fault belongs to Renner who doesn't quite have the talent to let me in far enough.