Monday, April 12, 2010

The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is a powerful, crisply made action movie about a military bomb squad working in Iraq. William James (Jeremy Renner) is the new leader of the squad, replacing the former sergeant who's blown up by a roadside bomb in the tense opening scenes. James is an unwelcome new presence to his teammates, the professional Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and the perpetually nervous Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). James is a cowboy, or as one superior officer appreciatively calls him, a "wild man." He steps recklessly into danger, always placing himself in the most unstable positions, always refusing to give up or walk away until he has defused the bomb.

The film excels at crafting one suspenseful, taut action set piece after another. Bigelow has an exquisite feel for pacing and timing, for drawing out tense moments into seemingly endless, heart-pounding sequences where each gesture, each slow intake of breath, feels like an explosion. The film is largely structured around the squad's tour of duty, with periodic onscreen titles announcing how many days they have left before they get to return home and end their tenure in Iraq. Each sequence then advances these three men a day closer to leaving Iraq safely; there's little more structure than this slow countdown, and the length and tension of each individual sequence emphasizes just how harrowing and exhausting a tour in Iraq must be. In one sequence, as James struggles with a huge car bomb, Sanborn and Eldridge survey the area, watching for suspicious activity in the crowds of Iraqis who inevitably gather to watch as James tries to defuse the bomb, tearing apart the interior of the car looking for wires and tracking down the ignition device. It's tense and wonderfully handled, as Bigelow cuts back and forth between James, trapped in the claustrophobic interior of the burned-out car, and the two soldiers outside, their eyes flitting around, trying to look everywhere at once and knowing that they'll never be able to see everything. The tension builds and builds and builds, as James cannot find the ignition device and, outside, the atmosphere starts to get subtly menacing.

One of the film's most effective aspects is the way in which it portrays the Americans' complete incomprehension of the Iraqi people around them. In scene after scene, the Iraqis are a silent, threatening presence, simply staring impassively at the soldiers; their thoughts and motivations are a mystery, both to the audience and the soldiers. It's impossible to know who among them is an insurgent and who is simply a citizen observer. This situation creates a dominant mood of fear and paranoia, in which every Iraqi is potentially a threat, everyone they meet might be a spy, or a bomber, or a sniper — or simply a citizen, as scared as the soldiers are by what's going on, unsure of how to act or what to do. At one point, a taxi cab speeds through a blockade of soldiers towards James, who stops the car by pointing a pistol at it, holding it in a Western-style standoff. It's a mysterious scene, since it's not at all clear what the cab driver intended to do, what he wanted, where he was going. Was he an insurgent or a terrorist of some kind, or simply an innocent man who'd blundered into the wrong place and then froze up, making himself appear guilty through his refusal, or inability, to speak or understand? As James says afterward, equally chagrined and darkly amused, if the man wasn't an insurgent already, he would be now.

Scenes like this establish a situation in which the gap between the American soldiers and the Iraqis is more than a simple language barrier; it's a profound disconnect in culture and understanding, a complete lack of knowledge about the other's motivations. The two sides are so rarely able to get beyond the mutual fear and paranoia, complicated by the legitimate threats that seem to be omnipresent in this country. As James defuses a complex web of bombs, an Iraqi man watches from a window above, and it's apparent that he was the one who planted the bombs. He runs downstairs, and his eyes meet James' for a moment as the soldier works on the bombs; the bomber and his prospective victim come face to face for a moment, but James has no way of knowing it. In the scene where James is defusing the car bomb, Sanborn and Eldridge watch a group of men in a tower seemingly signaling to a man across the way with a camcorder, and they're helpless, unable to guess what's going on, knowing that they can't shoot until it's probably too late, until the men have put whatever they're planning into motion. The film shows the complex types of decisions facing these men, never sure if they're confronted with friends or enemies. No wonder they're so tightly wound that they mistake a British squad with a flat tire for a group of Arab commandos.

This encounter triggers the film's best set piece, a lengthy confrontation between opposing snipers in the desert, as some insurgent snipers set up in a small shack some distance away and begin picking off the British and American soldiers. Sanborn takes up a sniper's perch in response, and time seems to slow down, as each motion takes an eternity. The rifle jams, the bullets are covered in sticky blood from a dead soldier, and each shot takes long moments to set up, with James directing Sanborn where to aim. Each missed shot demands an adjustment, a small tweak upwards or to the right, and Bigelow switches between shots through the rifle's scope — heat-blurred, hazy views with hints of motion identifying the locations of the enemy snipers — and forward views of Sanborn staring through the rifle's sight. The men are so intent they barely notice the sweat or the flies crawling across their faces. It's a compelling, tense sequence, and Bigelow hits each beat perfectly, with an attention to detail that allows each moment to have an enormous impact.

To the extent that the film simply stitches together several such set pieces, The Hurt Locker is a successful portrayal of the tight focusing effect of war, the way the immediacy of a moment in which a soldier might die overcomes any hint of context. The reasons for the war never enter the picture; no preaching here, from either side, since politics are as far from the everyday life of the soldier as Washington, D.C. itself is from Iraq. Likewise, the personal lives of the soldiers only sporadically come up, as in the coda in which James returns to his family and finds that, despite his love for his child, he doesn't really know what to do with himself outside of a war zone (a tired cliché that demonstrates, perhaps, the film's weakness whenever it's not concerned directly with warfare).

More often, The Hurt Locker is about the moment to moment struggle for survival and the effort of getting the job done. There is an brief stretch towards the end of the film when it initially looks like the narrative is going to cohere into something more conventional, as the hints of a broader plot start coming together. James is moved when he finds the corpse of a young Iraqi boy who'd been selling DVDs on the military base, and goes rogue trying to get revenge, but this winds up being a diversion from the less showy routine of the day-to-day bomb defusing job. It's a nod to action movie conventions, the hero who has to go off nobly seeking revenge, and in that sense it's interesting that Bigelow ultimately portrays James' action movie impulses as betrayals of his military professionalism, misguided and ineffectual. When he tries to be an action movie spy, sneaking through the streets of Baghdad in civilian clothes with a pistol, breaking into random houses looking for information, he's shown up as out of his depth, unable to perform the way he does when he's in his blast suit, facing down a deadly explosive device. James might be the film's "cowboy," who's praised by the higher-ups for his bold but reckless manner, but in the end he has to face that he's most effective when he maintains a more grounded view of his job, rooted in professionalism and procedures.

The Hurt Locker is a strong film, narrowly focused as it is; it takes as its subject these three men and their tension-filled daily tasks, and probes the sensory and emotional textures of this job. The film is formally rigorous, with a powerful feel for sound: both the explosive bursts of a bomb going off and the hushed, expectant silence that precedes it. If Bigelow doesn't aim much higher than crafting an especially visceral, affecting action movie set in our most current war zone, that's perhaps a shame, but it doesn't invalidate her achievement by any means. Indeed, there's no mistake: this is a fantastic action movie with some real flames of substance flickering at its core.


DavidEhrenstein said...

A very good summary of a rather remarkable film. Kathy is a big fan of Powell & Pressburger's The Small Back Room Filmmaking equipement being much more flexible today than it was back then she's able to bring us up-close-and-personal in new ways. Yet for all of this it takes genuine talent to know what to film, what not to, when to hold on a shot and when to cut. In this she's truly amazing.

Sam Juliano said...

Excellent 'late to the party' review, which still unearths some trenchant observations. In retrospect, a late review here allows for a better perspective and some deeper thinking. This is in large measure a gripping examination of fear, paranoia and the uncertainty of knowing what will happen in the next minute. The most telling observation here is this one:

"One of the film's most effective aspects is the way in which it portrays the Americans' complete incomprehension of the Iraqi people around them. In scene after scene, the Iraqis are a silent, threatening presence, simply staring impassively at the soldiers; their thoughts and motivations are a mystery, both to the audience and the soldiers. It's impossible to know who among them is an insurgent and who is simply a citizen observer. This situation creates a dominant mood of fear and paranoia, in which every Iraqi is potentially a threat, everyone they meet might be a spy, or a bomber, or a sniper — or simply a citizen, as scared as the soldiers are by what's going on, unsure of how to act or what to do."

Ed Howard said...

Interesting comparison, David. I haven't seen that Powell/Pressburger, but I'm sure it's a good one. The Hurt Locker definitely has the fundamentals of cinema down, no doubt about that.

Sam, I'm usually late to the party on films like this, I'm glad I caught up with this one, though.

Carson Lund said...

Your dense, thoughtful review here goes a long way towards reawakening my initial excitement about this film on a visceral level. I think it was exceptional as an ideal action film, loaded with carefully paced set pieces to ensure maximum tension.

But as I thought more about it (and I'm curious if this will happen to you too), I started to become skeptical of the film's apolitical treatment. At first, this was something that I found refreshing, as it didn't get in the way of the characters. But taking a step back, I feel it's somewhat irresponsible to set a film in the most controversial political landscape of our time and treat it as simply an action movie. Surely, the situations faced by these characters could have occurred in many other high-pressure situations besides the Iraq War, and would have been successful in studying the themes The Hurt Locker illuminates. I also find it somewhat insensitive for Bigelow to have presented the Iraqis as a faceless Other; granted, this is how the American soldiers treat them, but it still feels a bit politically blind.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Wonderful review, Ed. This is a gritty, well crafted action film - nothing more, nothing less. Rather than cowboy, I would call James a 'gladiator', romanticizing his activities in the 'arena'.

But I don't understand why Bigelow feels the need for those out-of-place slo-mo sequences. Isn't the audience smart enough to understand the interminable nature of time during these scenes by itself? Hammy I thought. Apart from such minor gripes, I liked the film.

Ed Howard said...

Carson, I didn't get into it much since it's been done to death, but I do share some of the same (relatively minor) reservations about the film's lack of political content. On the one hand, no film is obligated to be anything it's not, and there's no question that within its genre — war action/suspense — Hurt Locker is virtually unmatched for its sense of tension and visceral thrills. On the other hand, it does seem odd to me to make an Iraq movie with, seemingly, so little to say about the specific causes and context of the war. It didn't ruin my enjoyment of the film on a visceral level, certainly, but it was a nagging thought at the back of my mind throughout.

On the other hand, I think one of the few political points Bigelow does make is her depiction of how profound the disconnect is between the Iraqi people and the soldiers ostensibly "liberating" them. The complete lack of communication and understanding between the two groups here says more about Iraqi/American relations than any more direct statement could.

JAFB, I wasn't as bothered by the slo-mo, but I could've done without it. The film's best sequences, like the sniper showdown, had a kind of natural, built-in slow motion that was much more satisfying in its suspension of time than the actual slo-mo effects.

Shubhajit said...

Great writeup, Ed. The Hurt Locker has been a darling of the festival circuit, and rightly so. A visceral, gritty, and no-holds-barred take on the mess that is Iraq.

As you have so eloquently mentioned in the paragraph pointed out by Sam earlier, the complete lack of cultural & linguistic understanding between the 2 sides doesn't just add to the tension, but even makes the who process look so farcical from a socio-political context. The soldiers are there to fight for something, but what is that something no one is aware of.

The movie has its share of flaws, especially the way James acts at times, cos though he might be up for bravery award, his choice of actions border on reckless - something his colleagues certainly don't need in a situation as hostile as the killing fields of Baghdad. But that's just a minor blip in an otherwise well constructed film.

And yes, that long tension-filled sniper scene in the deserts was the best part of the film by some distance.

DavidEhrenstein said...

For films to work they must know their limits. By keeping to the bomb demolition crew and its POV The Hurt Locker doesn't get into the lives of the Iraquis that surround them. had it done so it would have thrown the movie off completely. It would have had to have halted the action for a Big Clumsy Exposition-Heavy deal. Documentaries are far better suited to dealign with the realities of the Iraq invasion -- its meanign and consequences. Kathy's movie is about The Clean-Up Crew

Daniel Nunez said...

I feel that by providing no context for the war, it turns Iraq into a purgatory-like place where the bombs and bodies never stop and there's no clear goal in sight. I think it also works very well as a black comedy similar to Dr. Strangelove, highlighting the absurdity of the war.

This movie inspired me to go back and give Bigelow's work another look. Turns out I still enjoy Point Break a lot, heh.

As for things like slow motion, I took it as the form following the function. Renner's character wants to be a movie hero where that sort of logic doesn't apply and as such, the film's aesthetics jump between realism and action movies.

Jason Bellamy said...

Nice review, man, and interesting comments.

In the spirit of Daniel's comment above, I think the film's depiction of Iraqis as "the other" is its political statement. This is the story of the boots-on-the-ground experience of the soldier, and that experience is apolitical, even when it's not. What I mean is that the soldier at war does his/her job because it's his/her job. The soldier might have enlisted for other reasons. The soldier might process his/her actions based on his/her politics. But ultimately the soldier disarms the bomb or charges the beach or takes the pillbox because that's the job. Of course, at the movies, we've been conditioned to thinking that every bullet fired in World War II had "fuck Hitler" stamped on it while every bullet fired in Vietnam had "fuck this fucking war" stamped on it. I don't want to imply that's entirely fabricated, but I think more often than not it's a recontextualization of those events.

In the scene where the men are pinned down by sniper fire, does it matter one iota what they think about the war? Whether it's just or noble? No. On top of that, one of the distinct characteristics of this broad "War on Terrorism" is the difficulty of recognizing enemy combatants. You either assume everyone is the enemy (which is dangerous) or you constantly wait for the enemy to identify themselves by firing the first shot (also dangerous). In that way, The Hurt Locker is making a statement about the experience of the modern soldier, even if it's not making a statement about the entire war.

It is an action film, yes, but I don't think it's completely unengaged.

Ed Howard said...

Shubhajit, I was similarly bothered by James' actions, but felt that later in the film, Bigelow started to criticize him more explicitly, mocking his action hero aspirations a bit, and it redeemed those moments in the film when I'd feared that it was heading into more typical over-the-top action movie territory with its domineering central character.

David, I agree that the film made the right choice by not venturing into the lives of the Iraqis.

As Daniel and Jason say below, the lack of context or commentary does emphasize the day-to-day experience of the soldier, and the ways in which the man on the ground, who's actually fighting this war, doesn't understand anything about the war's reasons. Jason makes a good point too that the film captures the ambiguous nature of a "war on terror" in which there's no clearcut enemy army to fight, only a big populace in which everyone is simultaneously potentially an enemy and potentially and ally. It's a very different kind of war, and though Bigelow doesn't make any big statement about it, she does capture what this new situation might be like for the soldier on the ground.