03 August 2009

The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow directs this war movie that is short on staged battles but big on suspense. Sergeant First Class (SFC) James (Jeremy Renner) takes over an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad after their previous leader is taken by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). James is a good deal more reckless than his successor and the action stems primarily from this, as well as the ever-present hazards of the terrain.

After all of the rave reviews and best film of the year talk, I was expecting this film to provide the summarizing thesis of the Iraq War - A key to grant an understanding of why, what should have been done, that nevertheless endears the viewer to the servicemen who wage this war.

Instead, the film has much more to do with war in general; seen through the particular details of this war. In doing so, it subtly makes a point that will take some time to tease out, but will ultimately provide some of the most remembered images and tensest/darkest meanings of the war.

This film comes as a welcome breath of fresh air for no other reason than that it maintains internal consistency and coherency. The first screen of the film contains with the phrase "War is a Drug". The words eventually fade out and only that phrase remains. This becomes the central tool for understanding the motivations of the characters and of the film as a whole.

The adrenaline rush is the fix that drives these characters. There are really only three: SFC (E-7) James, Sergeant (SGT, E-5) Sanborn, and Specialist (SPC, E-4) Eldridge. Each participates in the adrenaline rush to a different degree and it becomes apparent that SFC James is far and away the biggest junkie of the group. He feeds off of danger, especially the kind that is found while in his bomb suit, separated from the group, and alone with his life-or-death decisions in defusing explosive ordnance.

It is in these situations that the film looks its best. Crane shots that depict the scale of the setting and the isolation of the character compliment the war as a drug interpretation.

At other levels the interpretation stays consistent as well. SGT Sanborne loves the adrenaline, but worries that his draw to it will hurt his chances at promotion, and at life. SPC Eldridge deals with the other side of the rush. He clearly prefers the safety of prescribed work and taking orders, but in his talk with an Army doctor (mental health) he draws his superior in to the fray by relying on the "you have to go outside the wire to understand me" defense. The Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Doctor, drawn to the thrill and the status it brings, goes out on a mission but doesn't come back.

From my perspective, as someone in the Army, the film may miss in several tactical areas but more than makes up for it by nailing the feel and the mood. First, the most obvious issue is that trucks never travel alone in country. There will always be at least 3 or 4 in a convoy. The second is that the rank of E-7 is very difficult to come by. I know that my platoon sergeant would neither be breaking the rules by drinking downrange or fraternizing with his men. He definitely wouldn't have been the one taking the outrageous risks. At the same time, the strong feelings, the physicality, the empowering of junior soldiers to make difficult decisions, these all seem to ring very true.

Overall, as described above, the film looks great and the form is matched to the content really well. I sometimes felt that the camera panned too quickly and too often in some cases. These scenes generally were accompanied by a fuzziness and blurring of the picture. Eventually I came to understand this blurriness as a sort of visual clue that helps the viewer relate to the confusion present on the battlefield. The only shots I disagreed with was the slow motion shot of the sniper rifle casings hitting the ground. This seemed to directly copy the slow motion casings falling from the helicopter on Black Hawk Down. Not only was it a copy, but it stood out because it was only used that once. It didn't fit the rest of the film's gritty and real-time telling of the story.

This review could go on and on. The few areas of failing really only stand out because the rest of the film is so good. I will end the review by saying that the film is tense throughout and even channels the dark comedy of Catch-22 with a running count of the days left in the deployment and the macabre joke runs full circle when the last scene is viewed. At this point the message of the film becomes overtly simple, just like Snowden's secret.

URBAN: Highly Recommended

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