Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Hurt Locker: Review





Introductory Remarks:

What imbues all our achievements with value, and at times ultimate value, is the sheer fact of our mortality.  Why would we want to fly or drive ever faster; race against one another; climb ever higher mountains; cross the polar icecaps; participate in extreme sports; go on voyages of discovery and a litany of other hair-raising adventures were it not for the fact that we relish dicing with death?  In a certain sense Freud was correct when he said that at base we are imbued with two basic desires or instincts – the instinct to live on the one hand and the desire to die on the other – the death wish.  What I am saying is that our very mortality defines us and gives our lives a certain meaning. 

On the night of the 3rd of February 1820, John Keats asked his friend Brown for a candle after he had coughed up blood onto his pillow and dramatically announced:  'I know the colour of that blood; - it is arterial blood; - I cannot be deceived in that colour; - that drop of blood is my death-warrant; - I must die.'  From then on he wrote in the shadow of death.  This same disease was to cause Albert Camus to give up his beloved soccer – he had played in goal  for Racing Universitaire d’Alger from 1928-30.  Like Keats, he, too, spat up blood and TB was diagnosed.  Now, there is no doubt that this fact plays a central role in the insistence on death and mortality in most of his literary work.  Here at home, I must mention perhaps the greatest poet in the Irish language of the twentieth century – Seán Ó Ríordáin – he, too, was to spit up blood and also be diagnosed with TB.  All Ó Ríordáin’s poetry bears the stamp of his illness as he deals with all those existential problems that stem from our mortality: ageing, illness, unrequited love, freedom, meaning, spirituality, pilgrimage and the sheer shortness of our earthly journey which ends in our dying and in our death.

 

The Hurt Locker:

This is a wonderful film.  Let me quote the great writer, Italian medievalist, semiotician, philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco: he has said somewhere that the role of great literature is to help us cope with our mortality.  Now, let me apply this saying to great films and say that role of great films is to help us cope with our mortality.  I wholly agree.  Great works of art in any genre help us to live and to die well. 

The Hurt Locker portrays a small band of elite soldiers who have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world: disarming bombs in the heat of combat.  In this case the theatre of war is that of Iraq.  Here the cinematography is only brilliant: it shows us a devastated, barren, brutal and brutalising terrain which is the Iraq of today.  We feel we are in a desert devoid of all oases of peace and harmony.  Death and dying lurk everywhere.  A new sergeant, named James, takes over a highly trained bomb disposal team amidst this violent conflict.  This brave man surprises his two subordinates, Sanborn and Eldridge, by recklessly plunging them into a deadly game of urban combat.   We never really learn what motivates this individual – he could be either completely mad or a totally unfeeling hero.  James behaves as if he's indifferent to death.  This is unusual needless to say.  Why does he not fear either dying or death?  The film never answers this conundrum.  Are there really such impervious individuals in the theatre of war.  Perhaps there are.  However, that moot point is immaterial really as we very soon indeed engage our “willing suspension of disbelief” and begin to believe in him.  In this regard his relationship with a young Iraqi boy who sells him DVDs and with whom he plays football redeems James’s humanity.  We believe he is a good guy – with feelings for others – the Iraqis and for his own wife and son.   The Internet Movie Database gives this brief summary:

US Army Staff Sergeant Will James, Sergeant JT Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge comprise the Bravo Company's bomb disposal unit currently stationed in Baghdad. James is the tech team leader. When James arrives on the scene, Bravo Company has thirty-nine days left on its current deployment. It will be a long thirty-nine days for Sanborn and Eldridge whose styles do not mesh with their new leader. James is a renegade for who the thrill of the dismantlement seems to be the ultimate goal regardless of the safety of his fellow team members, others on the scene or himself. On the other hand, Sanborn is by the books: he knows his place and duty and trusts others in the army to carry out theirs as well as he. And Eldridge is an insecure soldier who is constantly worried that an error or misjudgement on his part will lead to the death of an innocent civilian or a military colleague. While the three members face their own internal issues, they have to be aware of any person at the bomb sites, some of who may be bombers themselves. IMDB

However, this summary does not do the film any justice.  As I have said above one really gets the sense of being in Iraq (the film was shot on location in Jordan within miles of the Iraq border). 

The Hurt Locker is based on the accounts of Mark Boal, a freelance journalist who was embedded with an American bomb squad in the war in Iraq. He later wove his experiences into a fictional retelling of the real events which he had witnessed.  He said of the film's goal, "The idea is that it's the first movie about the Iraq War that purports to show the experience of the soldiers. We wanted to show the kinds of things that soldiers go through that you can't see on CNN, and I don't mean that in a censorship-conspiracy way. I just mean the news doesn't actually put photographers in with units that are this elite." The film stars Brian Geraghty, Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie, with brilliant cameos from Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes as English mercenaries.

It is also interesting to note that the director of The Hurt Locker is a woman named  Kathryn Bigelow  who works in science fiction, action and horror genres. This may explain the moving scenes between the hardened soldier and the Iraqi boy called “Beckham.”  The Rotten Tomatoes Review site gives this film a 98% rating and opines that this film is thus far the best screen portrayal of the war in Iraq. (See this link: RT)

The most significant thing for me was the magnificent capturing of the experience of what it’s like to be a soldier in a bomb squad in Iraq.  One sees the mess and tragedy and sheer destruction and futility of war depicted in a very realistic way.  Most importantly this movie never preaches, nor does it indulge in phony flag-waving heroics.  It also skilfully avoids any political stances. It’s as fair to the military men as to the civilians whose land they’re inhabiting. Indeed, the movie isn’t about Iraq so much as it is about men performing jobs that could cost them their lives at any moment.  All of this is helped by the acting which is especially good throughout, with Renner cool and riveting in an excellent performance.

A quote from former New York Times Iraq expert Chris Hedges opens the movie: “War is a drug.” Few movies have played out that theme so powerfully as The Hurt Locker.  At the end of the film, our hero Sergeant William James returns for yet another tour of duty in Iraq after a brief respite at home with his family.  He simply cannot do without his adrenaline fix.