Friday, September 25, 2009

What's New in Iraq? Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2009)

People like me know nothing about what it means to go to war. And people like me know nothing about what it is that makes a man want to go to war. And for these reasons if for no other, I think everyone should see Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Just released in France with the more prosaic title of Démineurs, the film gives a perspective on war that remains novel. Namely, that there is something addictive about the thrill of being on the battlefield. Otherwise, I wonder if the film is as brilliant and groundbreaking as its critics have claimed.

The opening scene, like many of those to follow, is terrifying. What makes it so scarey is that we have nothing and noone to hold on to. I remember when Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998 and the pre-publicity word was that the opening scene was terrifying because the documentary, hand-held camera on the boat as it landed on Normandy beaches was unanchored, echoing the the destruction, and placing us, defenceless in the middle of the action. And I also remember being so disappointed by the opening scene because, for me, we were at no point left alone to drown on the beachhead. We had Tom Hanks to hold onto. The codes of the Hollywood movie are so familiar to us, that even without being conscious of it, we were under no threat because we had the star of the movie on our side. And there’s no star I know who is killed in the first ten minutes of a Hollywood film. At least not one who has center stage in the pre-release publicity.

The Hurt Locker is a different story. Bigelow does what Spielberg may have attempted to do in Saving Private Ryan. I found the opening scene as the team of specialist soldiers come face to face with an-about-to detonate IED, terrifying. The camera was so uncertain, creating images that were fragmented, dislocated and without point of view. There was nothing to hold onto. And even though we see no blood in this opening scene, I struggled to keep my eyes on the screen. Bigelow uses a confrontational handheld camera to echo a world out of control, a world in which blowing up streets, Iraqis, even marines, is inevitable. Life in Baghdad is cheap, and we have no Tom Hanks to palliate our fears for our own safety. This is another strength of the film: feeling our own discomfort at what we see in Iraq, even if it is fiction, is something we need to experience again and again and again.

For all intents and purposes Will James is a cowboy in the classical Hollywood sense. He’s John Wayne in a bombproof suit. Like the best of his 1950s counterparts, young Will James remains loyal to his fellow cowboys, does his job with precision, and is fairly much indestructible. The only difference being that he doesn’t ride off into the sunset looking for more. At the end of the film James comes back to the eternal war in Baghdad where the task of a gunslinger is never over. Unlike the lone Alan Ladd or John Wayne, James has somewhere else to go — a family in the US who do normal things like shop in supermarkets. But after doing his time on the battlefield, a life of domestic serenity is no tradeoff for the thrill of bombs, guns, insurgents and the heat of the desert. He’s addicted. Seargent First Class William James needs the adrenaline of detonating IED bombs to survive. It never occurred to me that this might be a reason to go to war.

Otherwise, I wonder if Bigelow has much to say about the war in Iraq. The powerful camerawork she uses to create suspense when James (and his comrades) go in to disarm an IED aside, this is a character study of the twenty-first century cowboy: fearless, built of steel, obsessed. And as the American frontier moves across the desert of Iraq, so continues the work of colonization, the bringing of “civilization” to those who apparently need it, but don’t want it. Not much has changed since the 1800s, this we know already.

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