Movie Review: The Hurt Locker by uncdiversions
August 5, 2009, 6:55 pm
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It brought a wry smile to my face in the movie theater, remembering what all the big-shot, educated, urban, liberal critics had said about “The Hurt Locker.” It threw them all for a loop, with very few calling it bad, some calling it “near-perfect,” and most calling it the best movie yet made about the Iraq War.

This is all so ironic, first for the fact that the movie soft-pedals on the war itself, buttering up the heavy-metal mentality of American militarism, so most of these critics were speaking their praises quite out of political character. Secondly, for the fact that as good as the movie is, it’s caused “Slumdog Millionaire” syndrome, with many critics giving it more than its due, slobbering over it a little too incontinently. It’s good, but it really isn’t that good.

Unlike most war movies, which have too much moral grandstanding to do, “The Hurt Locker” is actually about men at war, and all the complex processes, considerations and trials that this entails. The story focuses on one particular bomb-deactivation squad operating in Iraq circa 2004, whose job is to locate improvised explosive devices (“IEDs”) and dispose of them before they can rip apart Iraqi marketplaces and Iraqi democracy.

At the opening of the film the squad’s bomb technician, decked in a full body blast suit like some earthly astronaut of the warrior class, is killed in action, to be replaced by an adrenaline junkie Sergeant named William James. James’s two team members, one a cautious micro-manager counting down the days till his tour is over, the other a kid probably suffering from PTSD and wracked with guilt over his comrade’s death, are put on edge by his cavalier mode of operation. The seemingly fearless James has deactivated hundreds of bombs like a ballsy cowboy, sauntering up to any danger he can find, but it turns out, in the end, that he’s been rendered ill-equipped for civilian life. All he can be is a career soldier, married to the military till death (or worse, peace) pulls them apart.

“Hurt Locker’s” celebrated screenplay was written by Mark Boal, an embedded journalist during the war, and it has a total effect on the film and the audience. With limited visibility in urban Baghdad, these soldiers venture out into dusty streets and tight alleys, never knowing which items of garbage will blow up in their faces or whether militants will shoot them from around a corner. It forces the soldier’s, and more so, the embedded journalist’s, truncated perspective on events, giving the movie its truly riveting suspense. (As in, you are riveted to your seat.) There’s no glory or glamour or overblown dialogue either; just a simple plea to “cover me, please.”

It’s this realistic depiction of the day-to-day lives of troops, after all, that is the movie’s real critical calling card, and the attempt at accurate documentation seems to be a success. Director Kathryn Bigelow wants her audience to understand the psychological stress of warfare, and she does an admirable job reminding us that American soldiers are not mean bigots juiced up and ready for a massacre. They’re just regular people doing a hard job and hopefully saving a few lives, without any consideration for ideology.

But unfortunately Bigelow is a bit injudicious in her depictions of Iraqis. I understand that in a confusing war American soldiers can’t be expected to assume every man, woman and child in Basra or Baghdad to be their best friend, and that most soldiers will understandably be wary of throngs of unrecognizable people speaking what sounds like gibberish. There is a way to make a movie that documents this unfortunate situation without being complicit in it, but Bigelow doesn’t try very hard to distance herself from what could be called good old-fashioned fear of “the Other.”

In the movie’s last scene, where an apparently innocent man worries feverishly about his wife and children as Sergeant James tries, and fails, to remove a locked bomb vest from his torso, Bigelow never asks us to care about the Iraqi man, the stranger, the Other, as long as our brave American boy gets away in time. Even something simple, like an uncharacteristic subtitle for the man’s pleas, would have sufficed. Instead he’s blown to bits without being understood, and we know his memory will pass on easily enough. Bigelow would never allow such a fate to befall an American soldier, and just because she’s made a movie that depicts the tough lives of these soldiers does not mean that she can sacrifice other people in their stead.

– By Diversions Staff Writer Jonathan Pattishall


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