Monday, 5 April 2010

The Hurt Locker

I found myself rooting for this film when it came to Oscar time without having seen it, sensing that it must be better than even the 'greatest ever film with blue pretend cat people'. Kathryn Bigelow created two of the greatest chase sequences, on foot rather than in vehicle, for Point Break and Strange Days, and some commentators (Mark Kermode for one) thought that a victory for her would be marvellous as it would see a woman beating the men at their own game. That seems like a pretty hollow victory to me, and perhaps even a defeat for female directors when Kermode said he'd much rather see a film like The Hurt Locker provide the first female Best Director Oscar than the films of someone like Jane Campion (he found a rather derogatory way of summarising them which I can't remember now, sneering at the arty-ness). However one feels about the sexual politics, and the tabloid feel to the oft-repeated fact that Bigelow and Cameron were once married (briefly), all I really care about is whether the damn film is any good, the time to watch anything these days being so precious.

After some early and rather worthy treatments of the second Iraq misadventure (Lions For Lambs etc) Bigelow has chosen to look at the bomb disposal experts, or Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit, of the US Army. By focusing on their work she is able to examine the place of the military in a prolonged occupation, the modern threat of counter-insurgency, and the way in which war, for a certain kind of person, can be as attractive as any of the other dangerous and potentially life-threatening stimulants out there. We are thrown straight into the action and I shall throw you straight into a spoiler alert which you can avoid by skipping to the next paragraph. In Baghdad we watch Guy Pearce's sergeant deal with an improvised explosive device or IED. Donning the distinctive protective body suit he works away at the device until it is remotely detonated via mobile phone and Bigelow dispatches the first of her celebrity cameos (It worked with Drew Barrymore in Scream for Wes Craven - kill a star in the opening moments and you know it's serious). What this sets up nicely is the danger that anyone holding a mobile phone, any of the many Baghdad residents watching the spectacle of bomb disposal in their streets could be a potential insurgent.

Bravo Company's Sanborn and 'Specialist' are joined by new team leader, William James, with only 39 days left on their rotation. James however is what all military films require - a maverick. He doesn't need to use the robot to check out any suspect rubble piles or parked cars, he doesn't particularly want to wear the protective gear, and he is, crucially, very good at what he does. His recklessness and personal mission will make it an especially eventful final month for his two colleagues and a tense, thrilling ride for us. Anyone could be a potential suspect, almost anything or any place a potential bomb. This is naturally a completely one-sided representation of the conflict but this is done from a neutral standpoint. We see things only through the eyes of the American soldiers becuase it is only that way that we can really understand the jeopardy of not being able to trust even the most innocent bystander, the man they are supposed to be there to protect of course. In one of the final set pieces the protestations of a man who claims to be good and upstanding are rendered almost meaningless by the explosives and timer strapped to his chest.

Bigelow builds tension well, not only in the bomb disposal set-pieces but also amongst her core cast. James has a complicated family situation at home, Sanborn is struggling to keep a hold of the rules and protocol that have kept him safe thus far and 'Specialist' is traumatised by the knowledge that the slightest hesitation on his part could lead to the death of himself, his team or an innocent onlooker. Much like the blockbuster that featured another military 'Maverick' you even get some homo-erotic horseplay, but the close bonding that their job forces upon them is well realised and helps add to the building atmosphere. All three can see the end in sight and that causes a different kind of strain for each of them. For James a return to normality, to family, to stability, isn't the boon he might have thought: how do you replace the thrill of such an extreme 'profession'?

The Hurt Locker will go down in history as the first film to earn a Best Director Oscar for a woman but it is also the lowest grossing film to win the award for Best Film. I'm sure that'll change in wake of its victory but part of me, whilst admiring this as a good film, isn't quite convinced that it's a great film. It is well directed, well acted and brilliantly edited (both image and sound), but it only reminded me how much I had enjoyed Generation Kill which has the advantage of time as a TV mini-series, but also boasted an extraordinary script and cast. Both are worth watching however for a truly embedded look at the experience of the modern soldier.


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