(2008) dir. Kathryn Bigelow
viewed: 12/20/09 at UA Stonestown Twin, SF, CA
It’s a little unprecedented, perhaps, how many films have been made about the Iraq and/or Afghanistan Wars, while those wars have continued to exist. Both documentaries and feature films, big productions, following all kinds of aspects of the wars, combat, politics, the returning soldiers, the visceral realities. But then again, these wars have been going on in one way or another for about 8 years now, so there has been plenty of time to make movies about them. And unlike the films made during WWII, these are not, largely, propaganda films, beating the drum for the war effort. Probably the tendency is oppositional to that if still propaganda, questioning the government and the reasons that the United States is involved and the way its been handled.
There might indeed, even now, before the wars, or military occupations, end, to assess exactly what feature film cinema has said and done in the duration of the war. Doubtlessly there are some MA or PhD students working this angle somewhere in academia. So, I won’t try to delve into a litany of films, most of which I haven’t even seen, to compare or even attempt to contextualize, regarding this concept of making films about a conflict that has yet to end, that has yet to fully be known its meaning, to have its historical context.
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Lockerhas been getting strongly positive reviews all year, from its early release date, and though I’d been meaning to see it, I had failed, and I couldn’t find it anywhere still playing. And it was due for DVD release in about a month. But then, all of a sudden, it’s back in the cinemas, playing in several places, including, conveniently enough for me, the UA Stonestown Twin, perhaps the most orphaned cinema in San Francisco.
Shot with a lot of hand-held camera work, to heighten aspects of Cinéma vérité, the film attempts to give a ground-level perspective of an Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit in Iraq, a team of military bomb defusers, who face death every day, in intensive proximity. The film begins with the death of the team’s staff sergeant is killed in an attempt to defuse a bomb, and the story follows the team as their new sergeant joins them and leads them through a series of harrowing, risk-filled situations. Their new sergeant, played by Jeremy Renner, pumps himself up on thrashing metal, and like the opening quote shown in the film, thrives on the “drug” of war, but most specifically, the heightened thrill of facing death in every moment.
The film lives up to its accolades. It’s a strong and riveting work, with good performances from the cast, who largely are faces that one wouldn’t immediately recognize, giving the characters that added unfamiliarity that they could simply well be the soldiers that the actors are playing. Only in the beginning, when Guy Pearce (who only seems to appear in good movies) shows up as the first sergeant, and then later when one masked gunman turns out to be Ralph Fiennes, do we have any major points that jar us to realize there are some “movie stars” in this film. I am sure that all of the three main characters, though, will not long be able to go unrecognized.
The film is about the soldiers’ experiences, their ground-level, gut-wrenching lives and the radical change that it makes to each person. For Renner’s seargant, the return to the homefront, to the banality of grocery shopping, where his heightened senses only look at cereal boxes and other shoppers, he is changed beyond change again. He tells his infant son that there is only one thing he loves, and it’s his addiction to the thrill-ride of death as a bomb defuser. He is obsessed with the mechanisms that can destroy him, and while his companions can to an extent recognize that, they do not enjoy the risk.
The film isn’t necessarily a-political, but Bigelow’s intent seems to offer that perspective of the reality and insanity of the lives of the soldiers, while offering a glimpse of the way that the soldiers are perceived by the Iraqi people on the ground. What might be most interesting would be to study the War film as a War film, looking at aspects of camaraderie and idealism, commonalities that this film might have in contrast with say, They Were Expendable (1945). A contrast of what is the nature of the American soldier, what merits and ideals have changed and which are still akin to those displayed in a proudly pro-American film like John Ford’s.
For this war and this film will only achieve true perspective in time, with knowledge of things learned out, with events that have yet to unfold. I think it’s fair to say that this film is about an aspect of the Iraqi War, but really much more about the experience of the American soldier, and even more specifically of these bomb squads, something a bit transcendent, something potentially quite profound.