Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Iraq war through a narrow lens

Kathryn Bigelow makes movies that guys tend to like, pictures such as "Blue Steel" and "Point Break." Now Bigelow has ventured into waters that have spelled doom for most other directors. She has taken on the Iraq war, and to do it she has tightened her focus to the point where the movie isn't so much about Iraq as about the mental state of men who have the most dangerous job in the world -- locating and disarming improvised explosive devises in the streets of Baghdad. "The Hurt Locker" is not a war movie about great movements of troops or even about tightly knit platoons. It's a revealing, concussive look at a three-man bomb squad.

After the squad's team leader (Guy Pearce) dies in an early scene, a new soldier (Jeremy Renner) takes his place. Renner's Sgt. William James may be one of the most complex military characters ever put on film, an action junkie who can be as harsh as he is brave, a born leader who guides his companions through tough spots, gently encouraging them when they need it. He's also capable of caring about some of the Iraqis he encounters. Sgt. James develops an interest in an Iraqi boy that leads to one of the movie's few ironies. But there's no denying a disturbing fact about Sgt. James: He's into his work.

Renner, whose ordinary-guy looks add to Sgt. James' credibility, is teamed with two other actors: Anthony Mackie plays another sergeant, and Brian Geraghty portrays a lower ranking soldier. The movie covers the days before the trio is supposed to finish its tour and head home.

A director would have be pretty inept to make a movie about a bomb squad that doesn't contain a fair amount of tension -- and Bigelow is by no means inept. She gets the most out of scenes in which Renner, who wears a protective suit that makes him look a misguided spaceman who somehow has landed in the middle of a desert, disarms bombs. Whatever's going on in Sgt. James' head, Bigelow never diffuses the gut-wrenching tension that surrounds this kind of activity.

"Hurt Locker" becomes even more amazing when compared to other war movies. We don't have any loosey-goosey- cynicism (a la "Platoon") and certainly none of the standard tropes about an ethnically diverse force fighting for a common cause. The reasons for the war are never discussed, which means the movie is essentially apolitical. Or maybe it's that once soldiers have taken to the field, it no longer matters what prompted the fighting. "The Hurt Locker" is about diffusing bombs and staying alive.

Despite common goals, Mackie's Sgt. Sanborn and James are frequently at odds. When they get drunk, they play a game in which they punch each other in the stomach. Sanborn sees no reason not to do things by the book. James focuses only on getting the job done. At one point, he discards his protective gear, casually noting that he prefers to be comfortable if he's going to die. He's so good at his job that he makes his own rules, and, by the end of the movie we know that James only can enjoy this status -- a man of remarkable accomplishment and poise -- in the military, and, then, only when there are bombs to disarm.

"The Hurt Locker" seems as realistic as you'd want a war movie to be. I don't know if Bigelow supports the war in Iraq or hates it. You can draw your own conclusions about this movie which is set in 2004. Regardless of her opinions, Bigelow has tried to plumb the psyche of the warrior, and to show that the keenest warrior probably is beyond the reach of officers (David Morse plays one) and just about everyone else. Sgt. James inhabits a class by himself.

Perhaps because of its subject, the movie can't help but be episodic. A couple of cameos -- from Pearce and from Ralph Fiennes -- don't do much to disturb the sense that anonymous GIs are carrying out jobs that require them to respond to events that crop up in nearly random fashion. Bigelow seems to have made the movie as something to be felt, not considered. and as I watched, I kept wondering what Sam Fuller ("The Big Red One") might think of this movie. I'm guessing he'd be impressed because Bigelow has stripped her story to the bone, discarding excess and focusing on harrowing essentials, one of which is the opportunity for soldiers such as Sgt. James to find their true callings.

If war is a drug, as a title card at the beginning of the movie says, Sgt. James is one hell of an addict.

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