Sunday, July 19, 2009

Iraq into fragments: The Hurt Locker and the explosive vagaries of heroism

It is an action movie, and we’re accustomed to having the spectacular violence that is the genre’s lure delivered with a more or less clear hierarchy of values. The suspense and catharsis of the set pieces depend on our rooting for one side over another, for one sensibility or approach over another, to generate that extra charge. But among the more peculiar virtues of
The Hurt Locker is the lingering ambiguity as to where it assigns greater value within its conflicting codes of conduct.

The setting is US-occupied Baghdad. The central characters are Explosive Ordinance Disposal techs, a small team of men with strict lines of protocol geared toward the dismantling of Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, which have been responsible for half of all US casualties in Iraq. It opens with a scene in which likable, professional, quietly heroic men, exuding solidarity, do their jobs with precision and conviction. By the scene’s ending, the most heroic of them dies. Another man comes to take his place and everything about him seems designed to prompt our disdain. Compared to the dead hero this replacement seems reckless, cocky, unsupportive of the others. In short, he acts like a cowboy, an anachronism from an era of war narratives in which machismo is flamboyantly prized. We wait for his comeuppance. We keep on waiting.

Written and produced by Mark Boal, who was himself in a Baghdad bomb squad back in 2004, and who’s credited with the story for In the Valley of Elah, and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, whose films, such as Point Break, have shown an affinity for rites of masculinity and furious rushes of adrenaline, The Hurt Locker is at once imminently recognizable in its genre tropes, character types and emphasis on cultivating tension, and truly odd in its structural looseness and inconclusive morality. Like some shotgun wedding between Don Siegel and Claire Denis. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) swaggers into the movie without making any great effort to ingratiate himself to anybody, and in the thick of a palpably fraught assignment tosses off his protective gear and even his headset. He feels inhibited not only by the items designed to save his life—helmets are for pussies—but by the burden of having to actually communicate with conscientious colleagues Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who each have only a handful of weeks to go and are eager to end their tour in one piece.

Surely this arrogant lone wolf has no place in a serious story about getting through war alive, yet he gradually becomes emblematic of something primordial, a way of being that exists beyond shifting attitudes toward heroism or political correctness. He’s the existential man of action, trusting honed instinct above all and rewarded for his faith with the fact of his survival and an impressive number of trophies kept under his bed, pieces from every bomb that could have killed him kept reverentially in a cardboard box. We can argue with a character like James but we can’t argue with his results, and we all know that there are people like him who, despite our misgivings, have saved lives. Renner’s performance radiates exactly the sort of inarticulate confidence that drives someone like James, as well as the inner desperation that arises from the understanding that you might only ever feel alive, might only ever feel that your existence has any meaning, when forced to make a life-or-death decision in a matter of seconds.

Bigelow is clearly right at home in this sort of movie, a creative problem solver and an apt pupil of the best, most thrilling and most coherent action sequences of the 1970s heyday. A few scenes are overcooked, such as the one where Eldridge flips out while playing a video game and talking with a well-meaning army shrink, but most are lean and vivid. Her use of handheld camerawork is tightly focused and nerve rattling, with special attention always paid to the geometry of gazes shared by the central characters and the many onlookers, often casually dressed Iraqis who may or may not be complicit in the planting of the IEDs at hand. They are unknowable, and no apology is made for this.

Iraq in Fragments, arguably the most insightful movie about the conflict thus far, was founded in a multiplicity of perspectives, The Hurt Locker generates strength through narrow singularity. It protagonists do not pretend to understand their elusive enemy nor the general citizenry of the country they’re occupying, and I think they can be forgiven for placing far greater priority on the more pressing concerns of effectively executing their specialized task. And in this sense the characters are very much like their director. Bigelow has made a truly extraordinary movie by putting all she’s got into depicting the urgency of each moment with as much compelling intensity and complexity as possible, and wisely leaving the figuring out what to make of it all to the rest of us.

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