Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Ouchy Secured Receptacle

From my vantage point, America's filmmakers kind of dropped the ball when it came to Iraq war/Bush administration movies. What could have been a fruitful time for thoughtful commentary mostly was a time of duds and unremarkable misfires. Rendition was self-important Oscar bait with a poorly conceived message. Brian De Palma's Redacted was of some interest because of its occasionally audacious multi-media approach, yet mostly it bewildered me in how intent it seemed on criticizing our soldiers without making any sort of commentary on the war itself or the Bush administration. I know a lot of people enjoyed Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911; personally, I thought it was a smarmy, unentertaining slog that was only popular because audiences agreed with its message, not because it was actually a good documentary.

I skipped Stop-Loss, Lions for Lambs and Home of the Brave, so I cannot comment on them personally, but I recall the reviews being rather brutal. I also recall that In the Valley of Elah received mostly positive notices, but I just can't bring myself to watch a Paul Haggis movie. Maybe some day, when my ears stop ringing from the sound of the jackhammer that Haggis used to drive his point home in Crash, I'll give it a shot.

We're still close to it, so maybe it's understandable if our filmmakers haven't had the objectivity to look at the war and figure out the way to express their feelings on film. After all, the best movies about Vietnam all seem to have come out after the end of the war (Platoon, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July).

Don't get me wrong, I'm not exactly chomping at the bit for a great anti-war movie. I'm just a little surprised we haven't gotten one yet. The filmmakers I mentioned above all had their hearts in the right place, but for one reason or another couldn't crack it, could not figure out an effective cinematic means of expressing their ideas.

So maybe we're not ready yet for analysis, but what are ready for someone to capture the zeitgeist of the whole situation that is the American occupation of Iraq, and that's exactly what director Kathryn Bigelow has done with The Hurt Locker. The film, an action/thriller of sorts about American bomb technicians in Iraq, remains mainly apolitical on the subject of the war itself and instead works to build a powerful empathy for the American soldiers.

Unless you're Brian De Palma (seriously buddy, did American soldiers murder your family or something?), I think all Americans agree that we should support our troops even if we don't support the war, and The Hurt Locker is a meditation on what our soldiers are sacrificing by going to war. It's not a preachy anti-war film, and it's not a bunch of rah-rah patriotic bullshit. Regardless of your personal politics, the movie should prove to be a compelling experience.

MAJOR SPOILERS for The Hurt Locker will follow. Also a slight spoiler for The Big Red One.

I've been a fan of Kathryn Bigelow's for a long time. I've enjoyed and admired all of her films that I've seen, including Near Dark, Blue Steel and Strange Days. But she'll always have a special place in my heart for directing Point Break, one of my all time favorite action movies. It's a film with a predominantly male cast, about male relationships, with one of the best chase scenes ever filmed, and 3 or 4 other top notch action sequences. Not a lot of female directors would tackle this kind of material, let alone do a better job than most established action directors.

I think I must have been peripherally aware that Bigelow had been working on a new film, but only really became aware of The Hurt Locker in the past few weeks, after reading some strong reviews. I went from 0 to 60 on the excitement scale in about 5 seconds, and jumped right on it when the movie came to D.C. this past weekend. I thought it might be, if nothing else, a chance to see a more old school brand of action in the theaters. Bigelow was a master of the 80's and early-90's style of action filmmaking; I was expecting a throwback. I've enjoyed some of our modern shaky-cam, rapidly cut action movies, but I felt it would be nice to see something old fashioned.

Which is why I was surprised when The Hurt Locker opened with the sorts of shots typical in modern action movies: handheld, quick zooms, somewhat fast cutting. Nowhere near the intensified continuity frenzy of Bourne Ultimatum or Quantum of Solace, but noticeably not old school. My heart sank a little. It was clear this wasn't going to be a throwback, that Bigelow was trying to keep up with the times.

I hope this post serves as penance for my initial doubts about the style of The Hurt Locker. Bigelow employs the whole documentary-influenced, pseudo-realistic handheld style as well as I've ever seen it. She never shakes the camera so much that the focus of the shot is lost. She cuts in a steady and clear fashion so that geography is maintained, and each shot works to build upon the last (as opposed to the fast-cut information overload that many modern action films attempt). In a film based more in suspense and anxiety than outright action, this look establishes an unsteady, unpredictable atmosphere that runs through the entire picture.

The film starts with a neat fake out. Three soldiers in Iraq are investigating a suspicious heap of trash in a little village, which turns out to contain a bomb. The leader of the group is played by Guy Pearce, and of course I would have naturally assumed that he was the main character if it weren't for the fact that I had read a few articles about the film before I saw it and knew it wasn't to be the case. Oh well. Guy goes in for a closer look at the bomb and after a scene of mounting tension... well, let's just say that Guy isn't around for the rest of the film.

The whole "oh shit I guess he's not the main character after all" approach is a smart way to open this movie. It establishes the constant danger that these soldiers live in, that any character could go at any time, that seemingly simple situations can spiral into hell in a matter of moments.

The structure of the movie is interesting in its episodic nature. There's not an overarching, tightly plotted narrative joining together all of the action sequences. Instead, the film is a series of sequential but somewhat isolated set pieces, usually involving the team of intrepid heroes trying to dismantle bombs. In between set pieces, we are afforded some down time with the protagonists back at their base. There's no one goal or villain, every day is a new job for these guys.

So the real narrative comes from the characters, how their relationships develop over time, and how they change the closer they come to the end of their tour of duty. The leads are Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner, who had previously impressed me in 28 Weeks Later and Dahmer), Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, who I think has done some Spike Lee movies, but I'll always fondly remember him as Tupac in Notorious*), and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty from I Know Who Killed Me, where he fucked an amputee Lindsay Lohan).

James is the central figure, as his personality is the impetus for much of the suspense and conflict in the film. James's job is to diffuse the bombs while the others watch his back. He is good at his job, but bold, stubborn and willing to take risks on a level that is borderline reckless. Early in the film, he confounds his teammates by wandering brazenly into a potential danger zone to find a bomb, instead of letting their remote controlled robot check it out first. Later, while diffusing a car bomb, his teammates believe that a threat may be building and that they need to leave ASAP; James' response is to take off his headphones so he can ignore them and get back to work on the bomb. How can Sanborn and Eldridge trust their lives to a man who doesn't even seem concerned with protecting his own?

James isn't so much a hot shot or a show-off as a man intently focused on his job, who likes what he does because he's good at it. The opening text of The Hurt Locker informs us that "war is a drug." Is James addicted to danger? Does he have a death wish? No, but he is perhaps fascinated by death. He keeps little souvenirs of the bombs he's dismantled, because he's drawn to the idea of something that could have killed him, but didn't.

Much suspense is generated in the film, and Bigelow earns every second of it. The suspense is never contrived, it doesn't cheat. It is built from uncertainty and confusion, and is not manufactured to reach spectacular payoffs. It does in one scene exploit that most reliable of bomb cliches, the digital read-out counting down to explosion, but Bigelow doesn't cut to extreme close-ups of it every 5 seconds like in most action films. In fact, it's barely shown.

The suspense feels more natural than that. During the car bomb sequence, Sanborn and Eldridge see a man in a building video taping them. He appears to be signaling to other men across the street. The soldiers grow increasingly nervous; is something happening, or are they over reacting? Variations on this idea repeat throughout the movie, more often than not with the scenes ending anticlimactically. Maybe the danger was real and maybe it was only perceived, but the threat is always looming.

By far my favorite sequence in The Hurt Locker, and in fact probably the best stretch of filmmaking I've seen in any movie this year, is a tense standoff where the trio finds themselves trapped behind a cliff under sniper fire. I'm not sure exactly how long the scene is, maybe 10 minutes? I was too engrossed to check my watch. Sanborn mans a sniper rifle while James tries to scope out their attackers with his binoculars. Bigelow builds tension with stillness. She cuts between shots of Sanborn and James, laying near-motionless on the cliff, talking in low monotone, with shots of what Sanborn sees through the scope on the sniper rifle. Bigelow occasionally cuts to inside of the building where the enemies are hiding, positioned near a window. From Sanborn's view it's just an empty window; will he see the snipers before they take another shot at him? There's movement and Sanborn fires; a few seconds later, a puff of smoke on the side of the building informs that he missed. James calmly directs him to aim more to the left. And on it continues.

Through action, without much dialogue, the characters' relationships continue to develop throughout the scene. At one point, James asks Eldridge to bring up a drink of water. Instead of drinking it himself, without a word he opens it and puts it to Sanborns lips, so Sanborn can drink without losing his focus. Earlier in the film Sanborn and Eldridge were scared of James, and even discussed the possibility of fragging him if he continued to risk their lives. Now we start to see that a camaraderie has formed between the men, that on some level trust has been formed even if it initially seemed unwarranted.

Sanborn is able to pick off some of the snipers, and Eldridge stops an enemy soldier from sneaking up behind them. The trio doesn't hear or see anything for a while, so they wait. And wait. Hours pass, with Sanborn looking through the sniper scope. The sun starts to go down. "I think we can go now," James finally offers. And the scene ends. No fireworks, no action-packed climax, no spectacular catharsis to release the tension. It seems safe, so they go home.

As I mentioned before, one of the strengths of The Hurt Locker is its willingness to meditate on exactly what our soldiers go through. Logically, I understand how many lives we've lost in Iraq and feel some sense of the weight of the loss. Yet I don't know that I've ever contemplated what it would be like to sit on a hilltop for hours, unable to move because men are trying to shoot me. No other movie has ever made me feel so much empathy for soldiers in war. I would not refer to this film as realistic or lacking in artifice (in fact, I wouldn't really say that about any film), yet The Hurt Locker does seem to hit at some sort of truth as to how these men must feel.

The weakest parts of the film (minor concerns, I assure you) are the elements that seem the most contrived or structured. One character in particular, Cambridge, so clearly has "I am only in this movie to get killed" stamped on his forehead that his inevitable death lacks impact. Though even that I wouldn't bitch about too much, as his death supplies one of the best shots in the entire film.

The camera has him in medium shot, then quickly zooms out to show that we are actually inside the soldier's vehicle, where the other soldiers are chilling out. Cambridge is now in the background of the shot, with the other soldiers in the foreground, when BAM a bomb goes off right next to Cambridge, not only annihilating him but nearly instantly obscuring the action from view as dust and debris launches down the road and envelopes the vehicle. I said that his death lacked emotional impact, but the moment itself is terrifying.

I said before that the movie is apolitical and mainly concerned with imagine what life must be like for the soldiers. That's mainly true, except there is one subplot that could possibly be read as a commentary on the war. James strikes up a friendship with a little boy who calls himself Beckham who sells DVDs outside the base. James has a son back in the U.S., and you could argue that his attachment to the boy stems from James missing his son. One day, the soldiers find a cache of explosives in a building, and on a table in the building is the mutilated corpse of a young boy, stuffed with explosives. James believes this boy may be Beckham, and does not take it well.

When Beckham is absent from the base the next day, James assaults the older man Beckham normally worked with, and hijacks his truck at gun point. James demands that the man show him who killed Beckham. It's clear that the man can barely understand what James is saying, and is terrified of him. He drops James off at a residence in town, and when James goes in looking for trouble, the man drives away. And of course, after pulling a gun on the owners and generally terrorizing everyone, it becomes clear that these people are just regular folks and not terrorists. So now James is lost somewhere in the middle of Iraq, and has to make his way back to the base alone. Later on, after he's returned, he goes outside and there's Beckham, alive and well, trying to sell him DVDs.

Obviously the argument would be that James' actions are a sort of microcosm of the U.S. invading Iraq. He becomes involved with a situation he doesn't fully understand, based on faulty information, and no matter how genuine his intentions he only succeeds in making things worse and harming innocent people.

I'm guessing that might be what they were going for, although Bigelow has kept tight-lipped about it in the interviews I've read, instead maintaining that the movie isn't meant as political commentary and is instead focused on the soldiers. Which is the smart way to play it if she wants to get as many people as possible to see her film.

I knew this film was going to be tense, what I didn't know was how heartbroken I was going to feel by the end. And not because of some last minute, meaningful death of a major character, a cliche many films like to exploit. In fact, in an interesting choice, none of the major characters die in The Hurt Locker. (Maybe for the same reason none of the leads died in Sam Fuller's The Big Red One, because war stories can only be told by survivors.)

Near the end of the film, there's a surprising, maybe somewhat audacious cut: we go abruptly from the war to James back in the U.S., his tour of duty over, home with his wife and kid. And what we learn is sad, but given James' character, inevitable. James can't adjust to life back home. He goes grocery shopping and gets stuck trying to pick out what cereal to buy. Bigelow shoots the shelves as dominating the frame, overwhelming James. Here's a man who has disarmed hundreds of bombs and lived, and now he's defeated by Captain Crunch. Of course he decides to re-enlist; in war he has a purpose and a great power. At home, he's useless.

Before I wrap this up, I would like to give a shout out to all three leads and writer Mark Boal. Much of the film contains the kind of low-key, quietly great acting and character work that I value and feel like we don't see enough of in supposedly serious films. Don't get me wrong, I very much enjoyed Sean Penn in Milk and all that, but why does it seem like actors only get praised when they do funny voices and wear make-up and deliver passionate monologues and shit. The work that Geraghty, Mackie and especially Renner do in this film is all top notch, and compelling in the unforced way where they suggest fully formed human being without spelling too much out in the dialogue. I guess there are a few more noticeable "acting" moments where one of them gets a big scene or something, but most of their best moments are more subtle. Like the weary but focused and professional looks on their faces when they face off against the snipers.

The Hurt Locker is probably my favorite film of 2009 so far. I can't think of much else competition. Up, perhaps? Can anyone else think of some contenders?

*As in "B.I.G." Not the Hitchcock one.