Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Hurt Locker

In my Oscars post last month I remarked that, while grateful that it was shutting the abysmal Avatar out of the major awards, I thought that The Hurt Locker too was a pretty poor, severely overrated film. The time has come to elaborate on that opinion - something which will inevitably require a few SPOILERS (so, anyone who hasn't yet seen the film and might still like to, steer away).

Of course, it's a tense, engrossing, exciting film. It would be hard to make a film about bomb disposal that wasn't exciting. But Ms Bigelow & co. (well, I suppose the blame should mainly rest with the scriptwriter, Mark Boal) seemed to be afraid that it wouldn't be quite exciting enough (for today's attention-span-challenged audience) if it was just about bomb disposal, so they threw in a bizarre and completely implausible firefight/sniper duel in the middle, and a somewhere-beyond-implausible, nay, downright ludicrous lone vigilante episode towards the end.

I note that the most vociferously negative reviews on IMDB come from current or former American servicemen, many of them with experience in Iraq, some of them indeed in EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams like the one depicted in the film. I have some military experience myself, having spent a couple of years training with the reserves while at university, so am perhaps slightly more attuned than many people to the kind of SOPs (standard operating procedures) that soldiers follow in combat situations. However, I would think that any reasonably astute layman would start to become uncomfortably aware of the myriad inaccuracies or implausibilities in this film. The British group encountered in the desert are fairly obviously SAS (although the credits bizarrely refer to them as 'contractors': are they supposed to be mercenaries? or did the film-makers just not want to risk offending the legendary British special forces regiment?), and yet they get rather easily taken out by an Iraqi sniper (at extreme range, with what appears to be an ordinary rifle). Our EOD team has gone into the desert alone (only three of them, in one vehicle) - miles outside the city, in a completely unsecured area - to dispose of ordnance; why don't they just trail a huge banner from their Hummer saying 'AMBUSH US NOW'? Luckily, when they do predictably come under attack, the wily black sergeant - who appears to have served in just about every specialism in the US Army - proves to be an accomplished sniper himself (it really is not likely that bomb disposal specialists would be proficient with a Barrett high-velocity rifle, or even in spotting for a sniper). Iraqi traders are allowed on base, inside the Green Zone - without any apparent security checks at all (maybe some Iraqis are allowed on base like this: but I'm pretty sure they'd get searched every time they enter or leave, and that their IDs would be recorded). Jeremy Renner's character manages to sneak off base by hijacking an Iraqi's car, walks back across half of Baghdad without coming to any harm, and then gains readmission to the base without any apparent disciplinary consequences. Later, he leads his three-man team into dark alleys at night to search for possible insurgents, without any back-up (and, as one of his put-upon colleagues points out: they're not infantry, this isn't their job!), and then.... orders that they split up ("Ambush me now!"). These are comic book excesses grafted on to make the film more diverse in its subject matter; they completely destroy its credibility as a realistic study of the war.

It's the unlikely behaviour of the EOD team when they're actually about their business of disarming IEDs that draws the most criticism, though. Other squads of soldiers - who should be securing their perimeter, clearing adjacent buildings, sweeping for snipers - are rarely much in evidence, and not doing anything very effective when they are around; on one occasion, a squad is found cowering together in a tiny courtyard (just waiting for someone to toss a grenade on top of them) rather than patrolling the streets. This recurrent absence or uselessness of the rest of the army is presumably designed to emphasise how vulnerable the EOD team is, and how much responsibility they must take for protecting each other when out on a call. OK, I see that - but it is ridiculously overdone: it is clearly impossible for a two-man support team to protect the disposal technician from snipers etc. on their own. The repeated depiction of their operations in this exaggerated manner misrepresents how EOD teams actually work and shows a lack of respect for the contribution of the non-specialist soldiers out on the streets with them.

Worst of all, Renner's character (he's such a hollow cypher of a man that I can't remember his name) is a loose cannon, a maverick who shows little respect or concern for his team, disregards standard procedures, and takes unnecessary risks. On his first job, he unearths half a dozen artillery shells by simply hauling on the wires attached to their detonators. Apparently this was done because Kathryn Bigelow felt that it made a good shot (it was used on the cover of the DVD - and maybe on the posters as well?). I don't agree that there is anything particularly impressive about the image - but it would be a very good way of getting yourself blown to smithereens. Indeed, Renner consistently makes his two team-mates feel so unsafe that at one point they quite seriously contemplate murdering him in order to preserve their own lives. He makes a pointed contrast with his predecessor in the team (played by Guy Pearce in the prologue), a very cool, cautious, meticulous operator. Now, I met a couple of guys who do this work while I was in the Army, and I can tell you - people in that job are all cool, cautious, and meticulous. A wild man like Renner wouldn't last five minutes: he'd either get himself killed, or get canned as psychologically unsuitable. This again is cartoonish exaggeration to try to woo an uncritical but too-easily-bored audience.

I wasn't even much impressed with the direction here. Kathryn Bigelow's done some good things in the past, is a fine action director (Point Break, Strange Days), but this film left me fairly flat. In particular, [BIG SPOILER] she doesn't effectively establish why the first explosion proves fatal for poor Guy Pearce, but the final one leaves Jeremy Renner with only a bloodied nose; the latter explosion seems far bigger and above ground level, and Renner, rather than having his back to it and running away, stands and turns to face it; he appears to be about as close, or closer to it than Pearce had been, and he gets hit by large chunks of debris - but he is unscathed. Baffling.

There's no real elaboration of character either, we never get any insight into why Renner's such an arsehole. The opening epigram that "war is an addiction" suggests that he is an adrenalin-junkie, but there's nothing really in the film to develop that interpretation. He appears to enjoy being good at the job, rather than enjoying danger per se; and his unorthodox methods appear to be the result of a rebellious, anti-authoritarian nature - or perhaps just not being very bright - rather than an active attempt to increase the level of danger. And when he elects to return to Iraq for another tour of duty, it seems to be because his suburban American life is very, very boring; he simply misses his job, not the thrill attaching to it. Thus, the purported theme of the film - the excitement of facing danger in such a stressful job - just isn't there. We might find it exciting to watch men doing this job; and we might imagine that they find it exciting too; but there's no examination of this in the script.

So, if the love-of-danger is not the theme of the film, what is? I find there is an emptiness at the heart of the film - it's impossible to say what it is about.

Why, then, has it been so enormously popular? Well, aside from the fact that it is an inescapably exciting presentation of a fascinating subject, I theorise that it may have appealed particularly strongly to American audiences because it is essentially a 'white hat' depiction of their involvement in Iraq. It's set quite early on in the conflict, before the situation had become a quagmire, when there was still some optimism about the idea of having liberated the country from Saddam Hussein. And, although we see some of the awkwardness and hostility between Americans and Iraqis, the film is not primarily about anti-American feeling or about direct combat with insurgents: the work of the EOD teams is largely about saving Iraqi lives, and that's something Americans can feel good about. However, finding a feelgood angle in a protracted and avoidable war does not make it a good film. The action is unrealistic, the characters are two-dimensional, and there's no real point to any of it. I would have ranked it No. 9 of the ten Oscar nominees this year. In fact, I don't think I would have nominated it at all.


JES said...

Well, this doesn't address all the points you raise. But I rather agreed with Roger Ebert's review.

IMDB reviews aside, Wikipedia's summary of vets' responses tracks yours closely. It's hard for me to understand how a (principal?) screenwriter who'd served (with an EOD unit) as an embedded journalist apparently got so much wrong.

Maybe the reason American (civilian) audiences took so readily to the film was their relief at not being preached to, one way or the other, about That War. It may be difficult for someone who doesn't live here to appreciate just how exhausting the last seven years of polarization have been. Even if the film shows the war's "reality" no more accurately than a bad Saturday-matinee Western does for Indian/cowboy/cavalry relationships, to sit in a theater and not be "argued at" was deeply satisfying... just like somebody who'd worked hard for a given week in the '20s must have appreciated those b&w shoot-em-up serials.

Thanks for laying this all out. I'd been eager to see the detailed response!

P.S. Renner's character's name was William James. I wonder if this intentionally referenced William "Free Will, Pragmatism, and Religious Experience" James -- even clumsily -- but maybe there's at least a hint of James's concerns in Renner's character. I'm apparently (per Google) not alone in so wondering.

P.P.S. An interesting review of the film, in the context of Bigelow's career, is here. (Good comments, too, at least until they ride off the rails en route from Berlin to Poland, c. 1939.)

Froog said...

Thanks for those links, JES. I don't find Ebert the most incisive or critical of critics, but I quite enjoyed this blog post of his on The Hurt Locker.

I can see the appeal of the politically neutral tone, and the fact that the film can be enjoyed just as an exciting adventure story. And I don't demand minute verisimilitude in a film (ah, been wanting to find an excuse to use that word for ages now); but the plot-twists here were so outlandish that they punctured the suspension of disbelief.

A much better account of the tensions of EOD work (based, I think, on a WWII memoir) was the British TV series Danger UXB of c. 1980. Have you ever seen that? I wonder if it's available on DVD.