To kill Guy Pierce and Ralph Fiennes within fifteen minutes of them appearing on screen is a brave move. But then, Kathryn Bigelow has always been a brave lady. Her back catalogue of masculine blockbusters is impressive, including Near Dark, Point Break, and Strange Days. So it came as no surprise when it was announced that Bigelow was to add her name to the long list of big name directors who have tackled the Middle East question with The Hurt Locker. The post-2005 fixation with the War on Terror has thrown up dire attempts from even the most revered film makers and stars. The Hurt Locker, however, is one of the few which casts a challenging eye over the persistently complex issue of Iraq.
Huge budgets, great explosions, and heart-throb regulars of Heat magazine are normally a perfect concoction for a hit blockbuster. But within the context of the Iraq conflict these traits feel misplaced. Following the global appeal and critical praise of 2005’s Syriana, starring George Clooney and directed by Stephen Gaghan, studios jumped on the politically charged band wagon. But the metaphorical tapestry which Gaghan so expertly wove was lost in the appeal for audience figures and wide profit margins. Hoping to capture the same critical acclaim as their predecessor, studios exposed audiences to such lazy genre reworkings as Stop-Loss, Rendition, Redacted, and The Lucky Ones, not forgetting the most misjudged of them all, Lions for Lambs, where not even the economic prowess of Meryl Streep could save the film from its dreary and blameful interpretation of war.
Stop-Loss plays out like a Varsity Blues remake for the enlisted generation. The issue of being sent back to Iraq (or stop-lossed) takes second place to the predictable trials and tribulations of a teen from the mid-west. Rendition follows the usual plot twists of any thriller. The Lucky Ones is possibly the most absurd road/buddy movie ever committed to film, as a trio of Iraq veterans return home and embark on a journey so full of clumsy mishaps and melodrama that you wonder how they ever made it to the desert in the first place. What is most shocking about these pictures is their irreverent attitude to both the troops and civilians of their respective countries. In Redacted, De Palma’s new media style take on the conflict, the American troops are depicted as working class ignorant racists; the Iraqi civilians are nothing but helpless; and the terrorists are simply barbaric. The veterans in The Lucky Ones are portrayed as dim-witted, out-of-luck outcasts of American life.
One film which did buck the trend was Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah. The director of Crash casts aside the theatrics of his peers and opts for a sobering account of a soldier’s murder after returning home from Iraq. The empty American landscape frames the brutal crime, and the crumpled face of Tommy Lee Jones conveys the subtle anti-war message more effectively than any of the guilt-inducing, action packed war-fests.
The Hurt Locker is certainly one of the more mature and absorbent commentaries on the War on Terror. We are dropped into the desert side by side with the bomb disposal unit. There is very little exposition of who the soldiers are, what they think of the war, whether they are content to be fighting it, or even their first names. If we know little about the soldiers, we know even less about the Iraqi people, who are often revealed to us as simply a pair of eyes, sandals or clothing. We are following Staff Sergeant. James, Sgt. Sanborn and Spc. Eldridge as they are called to a number of suspicious looking red wires or abandoned cars.
This is an exercise in tense film-making, from the sweltering bomb proof jacket, the deathly silence, to the ever present sinister eyes around corners and spying through windows. The film does not completely avoid emotion, with cracks in the unit forming the closer they get to their last day of duty. We discover SSgt. James has a baby, and after a close call with death on his last day, Sgt. Sanborn realises his desire to have a little boy to look after at home. Kathryn Bigelow’s microcosmic study of this small unit drives home the atrocities witnessed by young men, without overly politicising it or telling us what to think. The end shot of SSgt. James looking overwhelmed by the choice of cereal brands whilst shopping in a huge supermarket has an outstanding anti-American sentiment. In two hours, Bigelow teaches us more about a soldier’s experience and their nightmare experiences of war, in a way we can no longer gauge from the clinical death toll figures on the nightly news.
The Hurt Locker is a hard-hitting analysis of the soldiers’ everyday lives. It is intelligent and humane without failing to thrill and represent their experiences in a realistic and sophisticated manner.