Tuesday, March 2, 2010

When Lives Explode

I finally got to see The Hurt Locker. This whole time I was wondering what the big deal was about this movie. The problem with most movies about the Iraq war is that they suck yet here's one that seems poised to beat out the top grossing movie of all time for the Oscar AND has the director of that top grossing film saying it probably should even though he ought to hate it since it The Hurt Locker was directed by a woman to whom he almost certainly refers as, "that bitch who took half of everything in the divorce."

What sets this apart from other contemporary war movies is that the former Mrs. Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, did not direct an anti-war screed but rather made messages and politics secondary to a fascinating story that is both a tense and suspenseful look at the business of defusing bombs and an insight into a guy who finds that he loves looking Death itself in the eye.

The story opens in Baghdad, 2004. After they lose their team leader, two members of an Army bomb squad unit get a new leader in the form of SSG William James (Jeremy Renner). Unlike their former leader who proceeded carefully and died trying to preemptively explode a bomb rather than defuse it, James fearlessly approaches bomb sites with little to no regard for his own safety. His partners are not happy about this, especially Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). He wants James to scout out locations using a robot or to abandon bombs that are too difficult and just let them blow up. James doesn't do that though. We discover that he is supremely competent at taking apart bombs and has done so with over 700 of them. We also discover that he's borderline crazy when it comes to facing danger. He's way too cool and willing to face death in these situations where there are many ways to die. His predecessor died when an insurgent remotely detonated an IED before he could get away from it. James doesn't even try to do that. Oddly, the bombers don't do this to James even though there is more than one instance where they're almost certainly watching from a distance. I admit not being able to figure this out. Roger Ebert says it's because the bombers are professionally curious to see if this guy can defuse the bombs without getting his hands blown off. Makes sense. Moving on.

The movie opens with a quote from war correspondent Chris Hedges who said, "War is a drug." James embodies that quote. People who take drugs do so because they love drugs more than they love themselves or anything else and that's how James feels about his job. He puts himself and his team in danger, sometimes impulsively. He has a wife from whom he may or may not be divorced and a baby son he's in no hurry to go home and see. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who also wrote the only other decent Iraq War film In The Valley of Elah) use this character to create frightening and suspenseful situations. James simply walks into crazy situations in which he could be blown up or shot at by snipers at any moment. His partners, Sanborn and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), are constantly on watch to make sure this doesn't happen and have to figure out if the various Iraqus who watch them while they work are the ones who planted the bomb or just some butcher wondering what all the fuss is about.

I still think Inglorious Basterds was last year's best movie but The Hurt Locker is certainly a close second. I don't freak out or act like I'm personally wounded if my choice for the Best Picture Oscar doesn't win. In the long run, Oscars are usually irrelevant anyway. Did you know Ghandi won over E.T. back in 1982? Even people who were in Ghandi probably don't know that. In the short run, however, it can be a huge boost to small (in the case, really small) films like The Hurt Locker and a lot of people will see it who wouldn't have seen it otherwise.

Still, things like box office grosses shouldn't be a concern for the audience. Just rent or buy The Hurt Locker because it's a good movie that can be enjoyed whether you try to understand the characters and the madness in which they live or not.


Dan Coyle said...

Actually, Cameron gets along quite well with Bigelow (though apparently Strange Days was her consolation prize in the divorce). Linda Hamilton, on the other hand...

Michael Clear said...

I know, but the joke wouldn't have worked if I had said that.