In the first 30 minutes of The Hurt Locker, stuff that’s never explained begins to happen. A wheel falls off a wagon, an engaging, dynamic squad-leader dies and isn’t mourned before we meet his replacement (who reminded me of the closeted-loony played by Martin Sheen in Apocalypse, Now). All of that’s okay for a film with a great, and justly deserved, reputation. Oops.
Early confusion is par-for-the-course, for any earnest audience, so I prepared to knuckle-down and get into the rhythym of the action. But Sgt. James, the new squad leader, begins his first day by blowing off the ‘bot, donning the blast-suit and strolling down to the unexamined lethal contraption by the mosque. And apparently purposefully obscuring the view of his two heavily armed protectors by tossing a smoke grenade in his wake. Why?
That’s the point at which my confidence in the filmmakers was severely shaken. They never won it back with
- multiple jiggling cameras,
- familiar faces in tiny cameo roles, and, most importantly,
- the absolute failure to show me just one coherent story.
I loved the complex confusion that’s intrinsic in Generation Kill last week, and eventually found plenty of episodic, character-driven storytelling to like in Danger UXB, but Hurt Locker‘s attempt to “challenge the medium” by creating cinematic profiles of three individuals at war simply missed the boat on which documentary filmmakers learn to be adequate storytellers.
The film is more suspenseful early rather than late, and the longer it lasts the less the squad’s relationship to one another makes cohesive sense, and the kicker at the end of the film translates into a curse that resonates with some (unfamiliar) guy’s quote that “War Is a Drug”.
Oh. So Sergeant William James (like President Harrison Ford in Air Force One) is the tough and enigmatic hero who survives an incredible ordeal — to emerge from the terrible crucible, pretty much, exactly as he went in. Enigmatic heroes are a dodge. Don’t ask. Whether 1800 kilogram bombs are dropped deep into London from 10,000 feet or whipped together at Iraqi roadsides, there’s something profoundly cowardly about the randomness of the victimization and a complementary intrinsic nobility in the people who disarm them. (Don’t EVEN ask about any similar intrinsic nobility of terrorists and Nazis. Let them make their own little movies.)
Apparently it’s possible to elevate “the most dangerous job on Earth” into a pointless movie about nothing in particular and garner awards and nominations and be flooded with offers to create more narrative vacuums. I tend to suspect that the unexplained, counterintuitive smokescreen isn’t what’s wrong with The Hurt Locker, it’s symptomatic of a defective industry.
Even if the apolitical, fictionalized account of one embedded writer’s experience of EOD life in Iraq in 2004 is absolutely true-to-life, random story elements that don’t resolve kill interest in revisiting highly-reputed careers, theaters and maybe even wars, just or otherwise.
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