The highly respected critic Manohla Dargis began her recent New York Times profile of the filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow by saying: “The take on Kathryn Bigelow is that she is a great female director of muscular action movies… sometimes, more simply, she’s called a great female director. But here’s a radical thought: She is, simply, a great filmmaker.” The double standard which Dargis points out is well stated, but I would never go so far as to call Bigelow a “great director” of any kind. This is, after all, a filmmaker whose greatest claim to fame is a mid-nineties Keanu Reeves vehicle (Point Break) which Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright could ridicule with the same breath they mocked Bad Boys II. The other highlights of her oeuvre are a forgettable Submarine movie called K-19: The Widow Maker and a moderately creative vampire movie called Near Dark which was marred by a low budget and a lame tacked on happy ending. The best movie she’d made up to this point was Strange Days, a mostly forgotten science fiction movie which, while solid, was only a minor triumph. As such I’ve been a bit perplexed by the revisionism with which many are describing this career in the wake of the release of Bigelow’s newest film The Hurt Locker. While I’m still not a fan of Bigelow’s career up to this point, seeing this new film does make me excited to see what the future will bring for Ms. Bigelow, because The Hurt Locker is significantly better than anything she’s made before.
Set in the midst of the Iraq war circa 2004, the film covers 20-30 days in the life of a three-man army bomb squad. The newest member is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), he’s the commanding officer and he takes point on the bomb defusing duties. Supporting him are Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) who must watch what he’s doing and look out for possible triggermen looking to set off the bombs. Quickly it becomes apparent that Staff Sergeant James has a very different style than his predecessor, he’s reckless and prone to taking wild risks. With only a couple dozen days left in their tour, the men must try to hold out in spite of the danger that this behavior puts them in.
It is no secret that movies about the Iraq War have mostly been miserable failures both critically and commercially. Granted, a lot of the movies that are lumped into the genre are really either primarily about other Middle-East conflicts (E.G. Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom, Rendition) or they’re about the lives of soldiers after they’ve returned home (E.G. Stop Loss, Home of the Brave, The Lucky Ones). Perhaps the only theatrical film thus far which I would unhesitantly say is about the Iraq War is Brian De Palma’s ballsy but at times terribly executed film Redacted, which came under heavy fire by right-wing ideologues for failing to exult “the troops.” Many suggest that the problem has been that it’s “too soon,” that there’s no way to fully assess the conflict until after it’s over. I have trouble buying this explanation, as there have been plenty of documentarians who have proven more than able to assess the situation intelligently as well as some surprisingly superior television projects like FX’s “Over There” and HBO’s “Generation Kill.” If nothing else these various projects have more than established the look and feel of the war in Iraq to the point where this film feels more like a return to the setting than an introduction to it, thus allowing Bigelow to hit the ground running.
While this clearly isn’t the first work to tackle the conflict, it is the first one to focus on actual combat… sort of. After all, combat in Iraq doesn’t exactly look like the frontline battles of wars past. Most of the fatalities in Iraq come from hidden bombs which often explode before the victims know what hit them. So in spite of the film’s focus on “combat,” I wouldn’t call it an action movie as many critics have. In fact, the film only has one scene which I’d classify as an honest-to-goodness action sequence, and even there the thrills are mostly suspenseful rather than visceral. Most of the “combat” consists of tense situations where the team must deal with live bombs which could go off at any moment. The film avoids most of the clichés of bomb defusing; the characters don’t spend minutes choosing between the red and blue wires (at least they don’t announce their dilemma out loud) and they are never given a large readout counting down to when the bomb will blow. The honest-to-goodness action scene I referred to, a tense Sniper duel, is easily the highlight of the film. In fact it may just be the best sniper face-off since Full Metal Jacket.
The particularly impressive thing about the film’s visual style is its ability to balance both conventional and documentary aesthetics. This is an equilibrium that many filmmakers have been trying to perfect lately, thus making this success all the more impressive. The film is shot handheld, but it is in no way meant to be a mockumentary, and it will not be offensive to those opposed to “the shaky cam.” The picture oddly looks both washed out and digital, a very gritty look but in an entirely twenty first century way. In spite of this gritty look, when the bombs in the film do go off Bigelow is not afraid to shoot them with all the gusto that Roland Emmerich would. Up until now Bigelow’s style resembled the early work of Tony Scott, it was slick and relaxed. So this film’s docudrama aesthetic is a pretty big departure for her. The is made even more impressive if one compares it to the clumsy way Brian De Palma tried to shift into faux-documentary styling in his Iraq film.
The film is completely apolitical, I doubt that Bigelow is a fan of the war, but no judgment seems to be made about the conflict other than that it is a highly dangerous environment that can be incredibly trying for those involved. In fact the movie is so neutral that at times it seems to lack even a storyline. The film is completely dedicated to simply showing twenty-some days in the life of these guys and almost nothing else, it goes from set-piece to set piece with only a few scenes back at the barracks to connect it all. In its third act the film threatens to form an actual narrative arc, but then goes back to its slice of life format. This isn’t to say the film is without depth, though it lacks a strong central story the characters are well developed through their actions and their conversations. Though the format is not conventional, this is not some sort of wild Gus Van Sant style experiment, it won’t be confusing to non-cinephiles and its style serves no extraneous purpose other than to support the material.
The Hurt Locker is indeed the best feature length film about the Iraq war, and by quite a distance at that. Still, I feel there are better movies about the war to be made in the future. Perhaps in the future we’ll get movies about this war that are as refined as a Saving Private Ryan, a Thin Red Line, or a Letters From Iwo Jima. This film is reminiscent of the more primitive World War Two movies that were made in the late forties and fifties like Battleground or Twelve O’Clock High. These were very matter of fact films which simply sought to tell a story about men trying to cope with hardships on a battlefield. They were simple stories of survival, no more concerned with the full ramifications of the war then the men on the ground were. I certainly hope that movies will come that can achieve greater ambitions than this, until then The Hurt Locker will have to do.
***1/2 out of Four