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.


Craig said...

While I liked this a little more than you, it's refreshing to read some negatives about this thing. It's as if all the critics decided this year they're going to coronate Bigelow. They could do worse, and have; but that still ignores the inconvenient flaws you pinpoint.

For me, the biggest implausibility is the way these three guys charge around free to do whatever they please. I've never been in the military, and if somebody has who can vouch for the accuracy of this depiction, please enlighten me. But it's not persuasive how it's dramatized onscreen. I'm not as bothered by the unrealism of a film like Apocalypse Now, because that's not out to recreate reality. But with a documentary approach, I think more care needs to be given to this. (And suddenly switching to a Matrix-like slo-mo explosion, like the one that engulfs Guy Pearce, is a jarring transition.)

I agree with you that it's time to give the shaky-cam a rest. Stephanie Zacharek wrote that a more classical approach -- with stillness -- may have been more effective, and I agree. I also found the scene with the colonel-therapist unintentionally amusing in that he's played by Dexter's serial-killer brother.

And yet, there are plenty of things that I admire. I thought Ralph Fiennes' cameo was nifty in how it set him up as a hero -- a survivor -- only to quickly knock him off. It ties into the overarching theme of how the kind of reckless machismo we've been trained to admire from decades of war movies isn't necessarily a good thing, that there's a price to be paid for it. (It's also one of the few set-pieces where the camera is unnervingly still.) And Renner, with his doughy-face, does a splendid job at subtly revealing the chinks in his armor. The extended sequence at home, in the cereal scene you pointed out, as well as a subsequent monologue he has with his infant son, are beautiful and evocative illustrations of the struggle to readjust to life at home, almost a story in miniature on the subject. I can forgive almost everything for moments like this.

Richard Bellamy said...

Craig - Thanks for your perspectives. I know someone whose husband was on an EOD team - and died - and she said her EOD friends are not jumping in support of this film - but I have no problem with lapses in realism in films, as long as I believe what's going on or as long as the lapse in realism is worth it for the end effect.

For example, when The Deer Hunter came out, soldiers (on both sides) ranted and raved about how no American soldiers in Vietnam were forced by the Vietnamese to play Russian roulette. But I don't care a fig - because that scene really works as drama and allegory.

Nice that you point out that the sniper standoff was filmed with a steady camera - because I really enjoyed most of that scene. The part where James spots for Sanborn and Sanborn is passing out from the heat: I was there with them. I wanted more of that. I wanted to feel there with them - but I didn't always feel that way.

By the way, I really enjoyed your post on Public Enemies. We agreed on aspects of that film as well.

Daniel said...

Gosh, it's bizarre how much I agree with your criticism here (on the empathy for James, on the predictability, etc.), but yet, as you read in my take, I found it to be at least among the top tier of the Iraq War movies so far, primarily because I think it gives us more of an insight into PTSD than others have.

But since you mention that supermarket scene I'm reminded that it really irked me. I don't know if such a reaction is reported by recently returned soldiers, but it felt a little heavy-handed to me to show how James is paralyzed by options. Yeah, I get it, when it's not as "simple" as a bomb he doesn't know what to do, but it's not like he'd never been to an American grocery store in his life, right?

Richard Bellamy said...

Daniel - Thanks for the comments. Yes, I'll give you that it ranks in the top tier of those efforts to capture post-9/11 American experience in Iraq - still, there was something missing for me - and I may not have even pinned down precisely what that was.

As for the cereal scene - I see what you're saying about choices (that would be a heavy-handed metaphor) - but I took it more as a depiction of the difficulties of culture shock upon returning to the states. I can totally identify with his inertia in the cereal aisle - it's just such an alien place to him. I lived for three years in Morocco in a small town on the edge of the Sahara when I was in the Peace Corps, and when I came back to the States, I could easily be freaked out by a cereal aisle. I specifically remember being freaked out by the food court in a mall.

Daniel said...

Very cool that you were in the Peace Corps! As was my fiancee (Costa Rica, a world away from Morocco).

So a good clarification about culture shock, though I might point out that I'm freaked by mall food courts, sans any cultural immersion elsewhere.

Richard Bellamy said...

Daniel - Right, mall food courts still freak me out too - so that was a bad example. In fact, I feel the same way Sergeant James does in the cereal aisle when I'm trying to select a specific kind of cereal my wife wants - so does that mean I'm still suffering from culture shock?

Nevertheless - I saw that scene as an example of the difficulties James will have to endure back in the States. When I saw the movie, I didn't consider the interpretation that he is "paralyzed by options," as you said. That may well be what the writers intended.

Jason Bellamy said...

Though I read your intro, I'd saved reading this in full until I finally got around to writing my review. Now that that's done, a few comments, late to the game:

* As I said in the comments of my own review, the shaky cam didn't bother me, actually. That surprises me.

* I agree with you that the film does a great job of showing that "Baghdad is a nut house."

* I quite liked the Fiennes cameo, along with the Pearce and Morse cameos.

* I agree with you that the film fails to tug at the heartstrings. However, I think you might be misreading the intent of "365 days" line a bit. To me -- and I should have put this in my review -- that illustrates that while other soldiers are counting down their tours, just trying to get by, James lives for the experience, lives for the day. When 365 days are done, if he's still around, he'll go again. In his return tour, he has the confident strut of a guy who is back at home. If others might see tragedy in that, for James it's victory. He's doing the one thing he loves.

* "...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." Not sure what you mean there. You don't think it's possible to tug on the wires? All but perhaps the car bomb are set to detonate when triggered by a remote device. I don't think the wire-tugging shows that he's reckless at all. I think it shows that he's decided that the bomb will kill him or it won't. If he makes a mistake, he won't survive to find out. So he decides not to live in fear. He takes command of the situation, as if he is in control. I can identify with that. It rings true to me.

* This film felt much more real to me than Haditha, but I wish it had a greater emotional punch. It's excellent, and yet it's missing something.

To the comments now ...

* I think the cereal scene is about the number of options (obvious, sure), culture shock (as Hokahey said) and the banality of non-war existence. It's not just that James has all those choices, it's that there are no repercussions for a wrong choice. Sure, he's been in a grocery store before, but it feels different to him after leaving a war zone where he was always inches away from death. When James looks at the cereal, I don't think he's paralyzed by options so much as he's saying: what the fuck am I doing with my life?

Good review, and good comments, all.

Daniel said...

Good points here, Jason, as I've just finished reading your review as well.

I think you've also helped me accept that cereal scene a little more easily.

Richard Bellamy said...

Jason - Thanks for devoting so much attention to my post and other people's comments.

As for the tugging on wires - some of those bombs are connected to cell phones and in Haditha it seemed like once the detonator was hooked up they had to be really careful with it. It just hit me as somewhat unrealistic. I like your explanation about why James does it that way - I'm with you on that; I just had it my mind at the time that something would have blown up.

I also like your interpretation of the final "365 days." Yes, it's business as usual for him.

Craig - Thanks for jumping back in with your comment.

Jason Bellamy said...

As for the tugging on wires - some of those bombs are connected to cell phones and in Haditha it seemed like once the detonator was hooked up they had to be really careful with it. ... I just had it my mind at the time that something would have blown up.

In other words, if you'd seen The Hurt Locker first you would have assumed that the guys in Haditha were being unnecessarily cautious.

Whether a guy in James' position would actually pull bombs out of the ground by their wiring (after first dismantling one of them; and maybe that's key), I don't know. But even James handles the bombs carefully for the most part. I mean, why wouldn't you? Better to be safe than sorry, right?

Even if you told me that a bomb wouldn't go off if I dropped it, I'd handle that baby like an egg. The guys from Haditha were amateurs scared out of their minds. Within the context of The Hurt Locker, if James was comfortable, so was I. That's the way I responded to it.

Richard Bellamy said...

Yeah, I guess James knew what he was doing. Usually when I'm watching a movie, I accept its fictional elements wholeheartedly and I try not to be influenced by things I've heard or seen or read. Nevertheless, whatever my perceptions were about what you can or can't do with wires in a bomb weren't a big factor in my final judgment of this film.