The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Till now cinematic treatments of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars have mostly taken overt, superficial political stances by focusing on the moral horrors precipitated by a misguided, meaningless and drawn-out occupation. Enter Kathryn Bigelow. The addictive thanatotic instinct, especially among an endangered species of disenfranchised macho men, has been her field of study over a three-decade career of subversive pulp (Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days), and now with The Hurt Locker Bigelow’s made her Full Metal Jacket, a projection of personal preoccupations onto a symbolic theater of war. It’s a difficult character portrait of primal and sociopathic urges channeled into militaristic bravado, a portrait equally multi-layered and incomplete — but I’ll take it any day over, say, Lions for Lambs.
This time her Bodhi is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a hot-dogging bomb squad unit leader specializing in dismantling IEDs. Rigged up in protective gear reminiscent of a deep-sea diver’s suit, James is a living Be All You Can Be commercial whose death-courting stunts are looked at in awe and contempt by two rattle-prone underlings (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty). But while his shrapnel-scarred, bomb part collecting fetishist stands as a product of a dehumanizing era of technologically advanced war (his mirror image is an Iraqi boy gruesomely transformed into a human explosive) who must resort to greater and greater dosages of risk to feel alive, James’ selfless teamwork and genuine desire to administer justice in a foreign land belies any reduction of his motives to Frankenstein freakishness. Such anti-psychological complexity is visually realized by Bigelow’s meticulously visceral style, her handheld, multiple-camera viewpoints continually shifting the emphasis of vision, power and identification throughout an unconventionally episodic narrative.
But back to our man in Baghdad: with his steely humanity and shit-eating grin masking a profound yet sublimated perversity, James outwardly resembles the cowboy-warrior image Bush pathetically failed to sustain over the course of the botched foreign misadventure into which he led the country. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are as enthralled by this image as they are disturbed by it, an ambivalence summed up in the film’s final, ironic shot of James swaggering back into desert action for one more rush as generic nu-metal blasts into the closing credits. A few years ago such a Marlboro Man parody — whether intentional or not — would have stung without qualification, but in the first major film about Iraq released during the Obama era the joke carries unintended weight. For James the arousal of playing footsie with oblivion never tapers; for the majority of Americans, any initial thrill has long since subsided. Bigelow explores the martial impulse that might pull James, and us, into war, but circumstances far beyond gung-ho bravado are keeping us there.
Opens June 26