Hurt Locker, The

Poster
2009
Kathryn Bigelow

6/10 (shallow; unrealistic; irresponsible)

This is another movie that is not as good as everyone thinks it is, although at least it was marginally closer than say, “Inglourious Basterds” or “No Country for Old Men.” It is a visually spectacular action extravaganza that has pretenses of a moral drama, but the last time I checked that wasn’t enough to win a Best Picture Oscar. If it were, “The Bourne Ultimatum” would have swept in 2007, because it’s the best action picture ever made, and Bourne has some serious moral issues going on.

I’ll start with the positives. The action sequences are stunning, and the tension is almost unbearable. Jeremy Renner’s performance as Sgt. Will James is impressive, although I have to disagree with the majority of critics who claimed that the other two members of his unit were equally good. The cinematography is spot-on. The mixture of hand-held camera — with it’s shake and random zooms and pans — and the hyper-clear photography that gives all daylight scenes a bright, sharp look works for a magnificent effect. The entire movie is terrifically watchable and even mesmerizing. It doesn’t get stale at any moment.

But all of these style points (plus the relative substance of Renner’s performance) mask some serious shortcomings that seem to have been overlooked by the vast majority of critics. First of all, I noticed some huge credibility gaps with the military maneuvers and procedures that were going on throughout the film, along with the main character himself. The nightime suspect hunt toward the end was a major dealbreaker in this regard. I literally found it unbelievable that the Sgt. would have ordered that mission, and that his two subordinates would have followed. Ex-military personnel apparently agree, saying essentially that it broke almost every protocol in the book.

This was the most egregious lapse in logic but not the only one by a long shot. Throughout the entire film James is pulling his maverick stunts that are not only reckless and dangerous but are also just stupid. I didn’t believe that anyone so half-assed would ever have survived for so long (supposedly long enough to disarm almost 900 bombs). In terms of wild luck, that’s like 100 times longer than the longest craps streak ever. It was just incredible, literally.

The second problem with the realism of the film came with the characterization. As with the Sgt.’s incredible luck, I also didn’t believe that he would go “on tilt” like he did after the kid at which he once kicked a soccer ball supposedly died. That was a superficial scene meant to illustrate his growing attachment to this kid, and it would have been alright if it had been followed up by something of more substance. Alone, it was just a lame excuse for some stupid behavior on James’ part.

The other characters were developed even more clumsily (spoilers). Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) has the depth of cardboard, and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) has two notes: fear of dying and guilt for killing. The way they set up him “killing” the Colonel/shrink was absolutely ridiculous. It was obvious what was going to happen from the conversation they had on the couch when Eldridge challenged him about knowing what it’s like “out there.” You just wondered how it would come. By the time the scene came, it had been telegraphed so far in advance that any possible tension was sapped right away. I’m not even that good at predicting stuff but I saw that coming a mile away, and groaned when it did. Talk about stupidly predictable. . .

Lack of realism is a pretty significant problem to have with a supposedly realistic war film, but it’s not even the biggest one here. The main problem comes when you start to wonder what this film is actually about. Not just superficially, because it’s obviously about Iraq War 2. I mean what is the message of the film? What is it trying to convey? What is the theme? And there are only two “messages” I came away with. One would be, “War is hell,” which I can’t say I disagree with but is also pretty unoriginal. That theme was done better in “Full Metal Jacket” or “The Thin Red Line.”

The other message — and I would imagine the principal one, judging from the introductory quotation — is that sometimes guys get addicted to war and they sacrifice everything else for the singular rush they get out of it. This, of course, is not even a message; it’s just a factual statement. It would be one thing if Bigelow was trying to tell us that such addiction was either good or bad, but I can’t even say for sure that she takes a stance. If anything, judging from the last scene and the cool rockin’ music, I would say she is pro-addiction, which is just confusing.

Now I don’t really think she’s pro-addiction, even if that is the vibe she gives off with the closing scene. I think it’s worse than that, because in the former case she’d at least have a position. I think the truth is that she doesn’t have any message, and she just wanted to make a really stylish war film, and she didn’t intend it to say anything about the ideas of war, or violence, or terrorism, or anything important. In other words, I think she made a completely vacuous film.

There are times when a vacuous film can be an okay thing. Hell you can check out my “10s” list right now and see “Drag Me to Hell,” or “Delicatessen,” or “The Big Lebowski” up there. It’s okay to not have a point except to entertain. But in a film about a war that is part of our current events and that routinely affects thousands of people and kills dozens of human beings, being pointless is almost unforgivable. Indeed, it comes across as extremely irresponsible. I’ll say again: it’s okay for art to be pointless sometimes. But not when it’s treating such weighty and pertinent topics. It actually seems disrespectful to all parties with vested interests.

That leads me into my next problem, which though severe is still nothing in comparison with the irresponsibility it takes to make an amoral Iraq War film. This problem is the portrayal of the Iraqis themselves. At no point do we worry about how they are dealing with these shootings, explosions, and invading armies (unless you count that giant explosion night scene at the end when they are dragging their wounded and dead out of the rubble as “commisserating” — I don’t).

In fact, there are no sympathetic Iraqis at all, with the exception of the man at the end who has about two minutes of screentime and then gets blown up (and the possible exception of James’ little boy). But then again, I guess it’s not a movie about suffering Iraqis. No, we the audience are clearly only supposed to care about the poor military men who are suffering over there. What a lame excuse to avoid portraying an entire nation as actual human beings.

Regardless of being disrespectful to Iraqi suffering, there was a moment earlier in the movie, during the sniper standoff in the desert, when I thought it could turn into something really special. It was when James got Sanborn the juice and handed it to him to sip while he was holding the rifle. Before this, they had a strained relationship and Sanborn had even blithely discussed killing his commanding officer. And now, James was actually going to suffer without juice for his comrade. At this point, I saw that the movie might start focusing on them overcoming their differences, and the unit finally coming together. It could have been a solid-if-typical movie, or at least a movie about something.

But it turned out to be just a tease, and five minutes later we got them punching the shit out of each other in a drunken frenzy. And then they were back to their normal selves the next day, with James pulling his crazy stunts and Sanborn getting pissed off. So nothing really changed. And that’s what happens in the movie: Nothing changes, there’s no character growth, it’s just explosion after explosion until everyone dies, goes home, or gets another tour of duty.

I saw a lot of praise for the film mentioning that it was the “best Iraq war film yet” or something of the ilk. That’s pretty faint praise considering the cinematic fare that has come out of Iraq2 so far. If its “best yet” status, its action sequences (though admittedly amazing), its camerawork, and Jeremy Renner are the only things it has going for it, it’s still lacking a lot to be a Best Picture candidate.

Anyone with me on a “Drag Me to Hell” recount campaign for Best Picture?

29 March 2010

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