Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is topping critics' lists this year, and it is a good film, to be sure. It had inspired me to write a rather long-winded and self-important essay concerning the problem with wars like the one in Iraq, but, as is usually the case, a bit of research quelled my zealous aims (maybe sleeping on it helped too), so I'll just write a review instead.

Let me get the grievances out of the way. I wish the distributors would have had the good sense to push this film with the same confident misdirection that characterized the marketing of District 9. Rob Woodrum pointed out that D9 is really a genre action film through and through, but what kept it from being predictable was a genius bit of casting (by using an unknown as the protagonist) and by making trailers that caused you to think that he was not the protagonist.

The Hurt Locker also benefits from a great bit of counter-intuitive casting, but the trailer gives away the game by revealing the protagonist and key dialogue scenes that feature him, so you know what is going to happen in the first scene when an A-list actor shows up as the would-be protagonist, and later you know the film's real main character cannot die in scenes that would otherwise be up-in-the-air because he still hasn't spoken certain lines of dialogue. When will filmmakers realize the creative potential trailers pose? Why not shoot scenes for a 2 minute short that could suffice as an awesome teaser to the film without giving away the game?

Second problem: while the film shows a good deal of restraint politically, the filmmakers just can't help themselves with a couple jabs that kind of took me out of the picture for just a minute or two. David Morse shows up as a Colonel who cartoonishly tells a soldier to let a wounded Iraqi die. It's not that such a comment is out of the realms of possibility, but it is not earned and feels very much like a forced political comment. And then there's Colonel Cambridge. What would a war movie be without the pencil-pushing commander who sits behind a desk and never sees action? Uh...a lot less predictable. As soon as his counselee Specialist Owen Eldridge tells him that he should join them in the action to see what it's like, know what comes next. But even worse, they have Colonel Cambridge telling the local people to leave a dangerous area, but with this absurdly caricatured mispronunciation of Imshi: “Ishmi!” “Ishmi!” he exclaims. Okay, we get it, he doesn't know what he's doing. He's an ugly American.

These are very picky critiques, I know, but it is because the film is so effective elsewhere that it should render such blatant commentary unnecessary. And to be fair, as many critics have already pointed out, this film is perhaps the first Iraq film that has succeeded in keeping ideology out of the limelight. Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips probably said it best, “Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, … have made the first fictional feature about American soldiers in Iraq that doesn't fall apart, or preach to a choir, or turn into a position paper. 'The Hurt Locker' plays it right down the middle politically, staying remarkably free of cant or polemical blather, focusing -- as any good procedural should -- on the incremental details of one person's line of work.”

My only other qualm with the film is that, once again, the nefarious influence of the anti-tripod coalition have convinced the director that shaky is always better at communicating agitation and tension. And while there are scenes that work in this way, there are others that just feel like the director is trying too hard to make you feel “like you're there.”

Taking these criticisms into consideration, is The Hurt Locker as good as everyone is making it out to be, or are critics just so hungry for a good Iraq film after being subjected to the last ten years of cinematic gruel that they would latch onto anything with an ounce of merit?

Even with my qualms, I'll go ahead ad get my ticket punched to ride on the bandwagon because unlike District 9 (which I really liked) this film does not follow genre conventions. This film is not just an action movie; it's not just a war movie or buddy movie. It is all of those things, but it is more.

I wanted the film to give me a climactic battle scene here, honestly. It had earned the right to do so, but the film stayed honest with the subject matter. The Iraq war does not allow for such romanticism. There is no Hitler pulling the strings of these insurgents. There is no absolute evil that can be identified easily and hunted down.

This war is waged against faceless enemies, a war in which the suicide bomber may be an unwilling weapon, not a nefarious villain bent on destruction.

So the film stays honest and refuses to use the Iraq War as a springboard to Hollywood endings. The heroes do not have the luxury of storming the gates of hell to stop more bombs from being produced. They must simply deal with the task at hand and disarm a seemingly endless supply of impersonal killers: Improvised Explosive Eevices (IED's-also known as Roadside bombs). In doing research for this piece, I found this chart depicting the number of IED's that have been deployed in Iraq since 2004, and I was surprised to discover that the numbers in 2009 are the lowest they have been in five years (

The Hurt Locker meticulously details how this came about: tireless, determined, and, in this particular case, obsessive attention to a job that is both thankless and deadly.

The film does not give any easy answers. It applauds the hard work these men are willing to do, but explores the limits of heroism and reminds us that even the best intentions can yield unintended casualties.

The Hurt Locker is not the feel good movie of the year, and thus should serve as a good pendulum swing from last year's endearing flight of fancy Slumdog Millionaire. Judging from the competition, the film seems to be the heir-apparent to this year's best pic Oscar, and judging from the limited amount of films I have seen so far this year, I would have no qualms with that.