Saturday, 2 January 2010

Best Films of 2009: The Hurt Locker (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

The Hurt Locker is the most recent attempt at capturing events in the current US / Allied occupation of Iraq, following the toppling of Saddam Hussein from power in 2003. Depicting war is a tricky and difficult task, always raising questions of authenticity: It takes years, sometimes decades, for an accurate appraisal of the war as a political, moral and historical event, and perhaps we're too close to events in this recent middle east altercation to really get to the truth.

What I've been hoping for, if I'm honest, in relation to this current conflict, is an angry portrayal of  it as the poorly thought-out, badly executed, and morally vacuous action it is, leading to the death of over 100,000 Iraqis. It would be good to finally see the implicating of political leaders like Bush and Blair as power-hungry Neo-Con meglomaniacs, and the true motivation being a cash bonanza for oil companies and defence contractors, the old military-industrial complex that was at fault for Vietnam, not the non-existent "weapons of mass destruction".

The Hurt Locker isn't that movie. One of last year's most critically acclaimed movies was written by freelance writer Mark Boal, who spent time emedded in an American bomb disposal squad in war-torn Iraq. The result is a mixture of action thriller and cinema verite. It follows a bomb disposal unit as they are sent out each day to diffuse bombs, praying to come back intact, and counting each minute until make it to the end of their tour of duty. When their much admired leader (a brief, excellent cameo from Guy Pearce) dies on a disposal mission, Lt James (Jeremy Renner, pictured above) is drafted in to take over as their leader and disposal expert. But James is unstable, and rather than wanting to stay alive, he's a "wildman", more intent on going for glory, and living off the heady intoxication of enemy contact, and the dangers of being blown up. His wreckless ways put him at odds with his team, and Sgt JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) in particular, as they put themselves at risk with each mission, coming closer and closer to death each time.

While there are stabs at putting the actions of these aggressive, macho grunts in a political context (Lt James arrives to base to discover it has changed names from Camp Liberty to Camp Victory), it is the madness of humanity in these insanity-inducing conditions that becomes the point of focus, the kind of stuff well-captured in Apocalypse Now. War is seen as a dangerous lark for boys, an exciting rush, "fun", as one soldier calls it on the one hand, but the reality of constant fear, mistrust of every foreign face, and death is never far away. It's a disturbing but exhilerating experience, and the attention to detail by Boal and Bigelow is to be applauded, as the personalities of the actors ring true as they clash, as risks are taken, tempers fray, and people die.

However, The Hurt Locker ends in an unsatisfactory manner for me, incomplete, one that would not satiate the publics' desire for a jingoistic action thriller, nor mine for a moral inventory of the conflict. Having said that, it's the most compelling, authentic portrayal of the Iraq war and its' aftermath to date, to be viewed as experiential rather than moral, and for that reason, it warrants viewing, and if predictions are to be believed, it's certainly worth watching out for at this years' Oscars.

Hack Rating: 3.5/5

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