Thursday, February 4, 2010
The Hurt Locker -- what do we live for?
Director: Kathryn Bigelow, 2008.
Wars never seem to cease. Every decade there is a new war. Jesus said there will be "wars and rumors of wars" before the end (Matt. 24:6) when he ushers in the millennial kingdom and 1000 years of peace. Until then, wars continue.
Hollywood's love-hate relationship with war seems to bring a key movie to the forefront each decade, one that is lauded by Oscar and often breaks new ground. In the 70s with the end of the Vietnam war still fresh in the memory, it was The Deer Hunter (Best Picture and Director, 1978), showing the dreadful effects of psychological torture on prisoners of war. The 1980s gave us Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986 Best Picture and Director), where American soldiers were not always benevolent. By the time the 90s rolled around, the focus returned to WW2, with the 50th anniversary of D-Day and VE-Day. Stephen Spielberg directed Saving Private Ryan (1998 Best Director) and gave us a totally realistic and in-your-face look at war and the Normandy invasions in particular. The war film for the 00s may belong to Kathryn Bigelow, with this independent film about the Iraq war; or rather, the ongoing insurgency now that actual battle is over. This "war" is characterized by IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and urban guerrilla combat. The Hurt Locker vividly displays the chaos of war alongside the adrenaline rush of war.
Thirty-nine. That is how many days Bravo Company has remaining on its rotation in Baghdad before shipping back to the States. With 90% of its tour behind them, the men are counting the days like children waiting for Santa. But when their bomb tech sergeant dies while trying to disarm a bomb, the bomb disposal team faces a problem: a new and different sergeant.
The Hurt Locker revolves around the three soldiers in this elite unit: Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner, 28 Weeks Later), Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, Eagle Eye), and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, We Are Marshall). James is the actual bomb defuser, while the other two are his support, guns to watch the civilians for signs of latent terrorism or violence.
The stark contrast between James and his predecessor Sgt. Thompson (Guy Pearce, Memento) is immediately apparent. Where Thompson relied as much as possible on mechanical robots to work the IEDs, reasonably only donning the bomb suit when he has to, James is in the suit in a flash and has no time for robots. His world is one of hands-on, in-the-moment thrills. For this EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Unit, that does not make for great team-building.
There are two things that make this film so powerful. First is the screenplay. A film is built on a script and a poor one limits the final product. Mark Boal, the screenwriter, was embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq and experienced the tensions and violence that an EOD unit faces daily. He was able to pen an intensely personal portrayal of these soldiers who have the most dangerous job in the world.
The second is the photography. Bigelow hired Barry Ackroyd as Director of Photography. As he did with the suspenseful United 93, he films this with a documentary feel. The rubble and trash in the streets give the city a grim look. With numerous cameras surrounding the actors, there is a raw immediacy in the film. The action is visceral and bloody. Nothing is pretty or glamorous. This is not a John Wayne war movie. It is not even a Tom Hanks film with beautiful French landscapes. Here, anyone can die at any moment, and moments of combat juxtapose with hours of boredom.
In one scene, after disarming a car bomb and breaking all the rules of team-work, James is confronted by an officer, who asks him, "What's the best way to go about disarming one of these things?" James thinks and then replies, "The way you don't die, sir." Over 800 bombs disarmed and he is still alive. The officer nails his character, "You're a wild man, you know that?" James is a renegade, a reckless cowboy. He has no fear, he seems indifferent to death. He is perfectly willing to face his mortality but does not care that he is putting his team-mates at risk, too.
Bigelow makes it clear from the outset what the theme of the film is. Before the movie begins, there is a quote from journalist Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug" (from the book, "War is a Force that Gives us Meaning"). War is a drug and some soldiers are addicts. Certainly James is a war-junkie. He needs his daily fix. Without it life is banal, boring.
Sanborn confronts James: "But you realize every time you suit up, every time we go out, it's life or death. You roll the dice, and you deal with it. You recognize that, don't you?" In one sense, James is a lot like Christopher Walken's character in The Deer Hunter, who was so traumatized by his POW torture that he plays Russian roulette. Life and death as a game. Will James win the next contest or will that be the bomb that finally kills him?
The three soldiers of the EOD Unit provide a study in contrasts. Eldridge is young and insecure. He is trying to figure life out. But he is convinced he will die in the streets of Baghdad. He has no anchor-point, no faith to hold him down. Sanborn is a by-the-book soldier who is clinging to the hope of survival. James is the renegade, break-all-the-rules non-com.
Toward the end James lets us see beneath his bravado. There is one thing he loves, one thing he lives for: the thrill of facing death. It is ironic that James, who has a small son, is willing to wager his life for a daily fix of thrilldom, while Sanborn, who has no family, wants safety and survival. Sanborn moves from not being ready for fatherhood, to seeing its necessity. He is living for the day he can go home and start a family.
The Hurt Locker, as intense a film as it is, leaves us reflecting on the question, what do we live for? What is the one thing we love more than anything else? Is it our family, like Sanborn? Is it pleasure or thrill-seeking, or our own form of drug, like James? Do we even know? Are we immature and confused, like Eldridge? For those of us who follow Jesus, we look to him as our model. He lived for one thing: "my food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work" (Jn. 4:34). The will of God was paramount to Jesus. He was in war, one much like that shown in this film: an insurgent guerrilla war. That spiritual war continues today, with metaphorical IEDs in our paths and unseen enemies along the roadside. Our mission is to advance the kingdom of God.
Jesus also answered for us the question of the one thing we should love: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37). God is central to all that we are. But Jesus added, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:39). When we love others in this way we will not put them deliberately in harm's way, just to make ourselves feel good, as James did. Rather, we will seek what is right and best for them, even if it means setting aside our own thrill-ride to provide for their security.
Perhaps best known for her 1991 surfing cult classic, Point Break (which was reference in the spoof Hot Fuzz), The Hurt Locker may be the film we remember Kathryn Bigelow for in years to come. It was James Cameron, her ex-husband and director of Avatar, who convinced her to take on this project. And with 9 nominations apiece it may be Cameron and Bigelow fighting over the Best Picture Oscar this March: both for war films!
Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs