The war film genre has always been a continually evolving one. And it’s probably no coincidence that the depiction of war on film has reflected the way in which its coverage in the media is also constantly morphing with the advances in communications and technology.
In the 1940’s, we huddled around the radio or sat in cinemas watching carefully edited and cheerfully narrated newsreels of gung-ho allied soldiers, charging into a wall of enemy fire with a smile on their face and their national flag in their hearts. In the 40’s, the line between good and evil, and us and them, was clearly defined and mostly unquestioned.
As the late-1960s rolled along to the beat of psychedelic pop and the pungent odour of marijuana, the Vietnam War brought the horrors of armed conflict straight into the living room. With nightly reports being filed from the front lines, and broadcast live on the evening news, the politics of war became more complex, and trying to separate the good guys from the bad guys wasn’t so easy anymore.
In 2010, with the second US-led Iraq conflict still unresolved after six years, it seems as if very little is able to be kept from us anymore. Photos of degraded Iraqi prisoners confront us from the front page of every newspaper in the world, followed shortly by ghastly internet videos depicting Americans being beheaded by extreme Iraqi militants (in what can be seem as one form of semi-legitimized snuff film). Even grainy mobile phone footage of a dishevelled Saddam Hussein swinging from the gallows can be accessed and watched at the stroke of a keyboard button, mere hours after the actual event.
In many ways, the Iraqi conflict has progressed into some kind of ultimate-stakes, multimedia reality show, and it’s from this smoky atmosphere that The Hurt Locker materialises. The latest film from director Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days) is an intense, fairly relentless war movie that deals primarily with the issue of combat as a drug, and an addiction that can mean sudden, violent death for anyone around them.
Following a small bomb disposal unit as they go about their treacherous business, The Hurt Locker doesn’t exactly have a complex, plot driven storyline. It’s basically a character study that’s structured around a series of individual set pieces. What makes it work is the almost continual thread of tension that weaves its way throughout the entire film, with the viewer always expecting, but never really knowing when, the next moment of violence will suddenly erupt (and when it does, it’s almost a relief). And when the tension’s not on the battlefield, it’s in the barracks, as the once cohesive unit comes to odds with their new, brash and seemingly irresponsible adrenalin junkie team leader, Sergeant William James (brilliantly played with a white trash edge by Jeremy Renner, who has early stunned me with his portrayal of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the 2002 Dahmer biopic).
With the gritty edge of a frontline television report to it (though thankfully not overly heavy on the shaky hand-held camera), and with its indelible sense of ‘stranger in a strange land’ isolation (it was filmed in Kuwait and Jordan), The Hurt Locker is one of the best American films I have seen for some time (even though its third act is something of a comedown after the first two), and an almost instant addition to the list of classic war cinema. A real triumph from Kathryn Bigelow and all involved, and one which I’d love to see Bigelow rewarded with an Oscar at the upcoming Academy Awards. If she happens to win, it will be one of the most deserved winners in the Oscars’ recent lacklustre history (and apart from being the first female to win a Best Director Oscar, it would also be great to see Bigelow upstage former husband James Cameron by denying him a win for the entertaining but way overbloated and hyped Avatar). A win for Renner as Best Actor would also not go undeserved.
Review Copyright John Harrison 2010