The Hurt Locker [R]
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, Evangeline Lilly
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
There is a popular debate among James Bond fans – could a woman ever direct a James Bond film? Many fans fear a female director would de-ball the ultimate male fantasy rogue, force him to wear sweaters and go to baby showers and shit. I’ve always thought the opposite, that a Bond movie directed by a woman – especially the type of woman who would want to direct a Bond movie – would be the most violent and libidinal film in the series.
Being a female with a track record in action, these discussions always end up on the doorstep of Kathryn Bigelow, whose history consists of stories of men and their ritualism in extreme conditions. Certainly her first film in a while, the scintillating Iraq War thriller The Hurt Locker, following a bomb-disposal unit through the paranoid streets of Baghdad, vindicates that position. Can a woman direct a war film? By the end of The Hurt Locker, you’ll wonder if men can.
For a film so focused on manhood, I’ll start this review in an unusual place – the brief, brief, brief time in which we see the masterly bomb defuser Sgt. White at home grocery shopping, scraping out rain gutters, and looking like he’s in hell. In the kitchen, one day, he reminisces about the war and mentions the Army’s shortage of experienced bomb techs. And his wife (Lost’s Evangeline Lilly) knows where this conversation is going. This is the moment that panty-waist males would insert the big “You have a family” harangue. You brace for it but it never comes. Instead, we get the wry smile of the only person who truly understands her complicated husband. And if she wanted to marry boring, the world is full of bankers.
The names inevitably dropped around The Hurt Locker are Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, the hypnotically tense 1954 film about men delivering nitroglycerin along the rocky roads of the Andes, and the hypnotically tense The Battle of Algiers, a First World-Third World contest of wills during the Algerian Civil War. But I’m struck by a comparison to something I’ve read about a film I’ve never seen – Werner Herzog’s documentary Lessons of Darkness, about the men who put out the oil fires after the first Iraq War. One Herzog essay described the men as modern medievals, effectively knights dressed in modern armor in a chivalrous joust with monsters of fire.
In similar modern moonsuit armor, Sgt. White exudes what Tom Wolfe identified famously in astronauts as “The Right Stuff, “a supernatural calm in the face of ultimate danger. In centuries past this gift might have been seen as holy madness, his noble mission a matter of divine calling amid the unholy carnage. He shows old wounds on his stomach, and rather than discourage him, you suspect this only re-inforced the conviction of his own invulnerability. And the battles, from the daily defusings to the hide and seek war games with the hidden bombmakers to a superb sniper shootout in the desert, come across as modern jousts. The war he fights, while nasty and even diabolical, always keeps this mysterious edge of chivalry.
It’s no great cinematic observation to say the arc of war film history runs from celebratory heroism to dehumanization. A few years ago, Sam Mendes’ so-so Jarhead, a tale of obsolete snipers in the first Gulf War, went past dehumanization to emasculation. And while screenwriter Mark Boal cites Jarhead as an influence, I find The Hurt Locker to be more of an antidote, as if war’s technological boredom has shrunk to a distance and revealed once again the qualities of men. Because what The Hurt Locker finds in war the immense terror, but also masculinity reaching its widest expression. By filming beautiful men doing masculine things in fierce circumstances, Bigelow captures the male peacock in full plume.
And while war opponents will sift the blast site for support, they will sleep through one obvious conclusion – that Bigelow has made the sexiest war film since Top Gun. The Hurt Locker manages to re-individualize and re-masculinize and re-sexualize and re-heroicize war and the war film in a responsible way that does not ignore the horror of the phenomenon.