Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Hurt Locker and the war film

I don't like war films very much. As a good cinephile-liberal, I want my war films to be antiwar, but without functioning as ideological treatises that force my thought in too particular a direction. In other words, I still want them to be works of art and not pamphlets, admirable though the making of a pamphlet may be. But that's a tough request, particularly since the making of an effective work of art still frequently requires a coherent, if not forced, political perspective. And for an industry that pivots around the celebrity star's persona, it is hard for the war film to avoid endorsing, or at least admiring, the central actions their frequently appealing and even glamorous protagonists undertake.

Samuel Fuller, whose films are often forthrightly, and powerfully, unglamorous, once suggested otherwise. In his thoroughly enjoyable posthumous biography A Third Face, Fuller waxes philosophical on the reception and intended purpose of his 1980 war film, The Big Red One:

In a strange twist of fate, some people got the idea I was a warmonger, that my films promoted war. What bullshit! For Chrissakes, war is living hell. I hope no one ever has to have that goddamned experience again, either as a soldier or a noncombatant. Never! We must avoid war at all costs (219).

The first half of that quote captures the insolence and beautifully single-minded determination of the Fuller who made crackerjack and paradoxically inimitable (because they were works of genre) films in the 1950s. I want to believe the passion behind Fuller's statement: his Run of the Arrow (1957) still stands as one my most revelatory cinematic experiences - seeing it alongside my first French New Wave films, it helped me understand how the stylistic construction of a film could generate, rather than merely illustrate or invisibly convey, narrative content. But as much as I admire him, the second half of Fuller's quote strikes me as bullshit. If Fuller didn't want anyone to have that "goddamned experience again," why make a movie about it?

The simple truth is, we return, and want to return, to the (cinematic) experience of war time and again; the minute we pay for our ticket, we're complicit. Perhaps an antiwar film is impossible simply because while it is possible for a genre film to be subversive and transgressive of its conventions, it is impossible for it to be "against" itself, truly, without ceasing to be itself. And the allure of the iconic images that set genre films into motion, at least at this moment in film history, is hard to resist. When's the last time you saw a gangster movie that was anti-gangster?

Yet, for the sake of argument, I still want to say that at least two antiwar films exist: Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory (1957) and Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998). Perhaps they avoid the traps of conventional war films because neither features "stars" in central roles (some critics have suggested that Malick's film consciously circumvents the industry's calculating use of star personas in the casting of its most recognizable performers in what amounts to walk-on parts). But they are also perhaps antiwar because, without being "transgressive" or "subversive" (admittedly overused labels that insult the intelligence of these two filmmakers), they push so far at the bounds of genre that perhaps they are no longer genre films. They make a good bid as antiwar because each of them are about more than war - they are about a facet of what academics used to call "the human condition" (a concept that many today tend to avoid for its generality and flattening of difference, all while replacing it with even more encompassing generalizations and assumptions) that is responsible for many of the evils of war, but much else besides.

What Ray and Malick understood, at least, is that "the human condition" is a meaningless abstraction unless it's tied to specific events, concrete personalities, and contextualized outcomes - and those are some of the things that movies are good at observing, stylizing, and dramatizing. Bitter Victory may be the most tragic movie in the history of film not because it makes a grand antiwar statement, but because its melancholy regarding the human condition is deduced from the concrete relationship between two characters (a relationship that then centrifugally suggests something that is true about the war surrounding them). At the very least, this perfectly titled film contains one of the most tragic sequences imaginable in any medium.

Richard Burton plays Captain Leith, a cynical intellectual who treats the war he is in as a theater of the absurd. His rival is Major Brand (Curt Jurgens, in a performance that should not work, but does). In one of the most vividly realized sequences in Ray's filmography, Leith is ordered by Brand (whose relationship with the former is charged with envy and deceit) to look after two fellow soldiers who are dying in the heat of the Libyan desert. As Brand devilishly knows, it's an impossible task. The two soldiers can't be saved, and Leith decides to put them out of their misery. The first soldier, who desperately does not want to die, is shot by Leith. (He is picked to be shot first seemingly at random). The second, who just as desperately wants to be put out of his misery, asking for Leith to shoot him, remains alive, only because Leith runs out of bullets. Leith realizes he then must carry this man as far as he can, until either he dies or until he comes across another member of his squadron. Leith has found that he has killed the living, and saved the dead; absurd indeed.

I'm convinced that if this indelible sequence, and the equally unforgettable final image in Ray's film, are not antiwar, then an antiwar position is not possible in a film that does not operate as a didactic political treatise. I'm less sure about the Malick film. If we came to The Thin Red Line to see what the mainstream regards as a "war film," we will likely be disappointed, or confused (as many likely were in 1998, given that its brethren Saving Private Ryan was so firmly locked in genre). But there's no other war film I can think of that uses its premise to ruminate on the larger question of death than this one. Yet the film doesn't contain a single moment that I can point to, as Bitter Victory so clearly does, that strikes me as "antiwar." Depicted are brutal moments of senseless killing, and Malick regards them with a poet's distanced melancholy. The film also makes it clear that, unlike patriotic war films, it will not provide any moral justification for World War II (the narrative is about a set of soldiers confronting, and attempting to ascribe meaning to, their lives in the face of their potential immediate deaths; the patriotism of the Spielberg film, which gives meaning to each soldier a priori, is nowhere found). The closest it gets to an explicitly antiwar stance is in Sean Penn's Welsh, but that character's misanthropy and nihilism passes through antiwar and becomes anti-humanity (and the film itself is not anti-human). It's a powerful film (although perhaps Malick's weakest), and nobody who sees it will want to rush to war. Yet Bitter Victory makes me angrier.

This discussion is leading, as the title of the post suggests, to the more topical The Hurt Locker (2009), Kathyrn Bigelow's new film about the experience of a set of soldiers in the second Gulf War. Bigelow is an accomplished action director, and every few years her name is bandied about in serious discussions about important American filmmakers. She is important enough for being one of the few female filmmakers able to consistently set up and realize big-budget projects within the industry. The Hurt Locker, on one viewing, is impressive enough to at least be mentioned with the Ray and Malick films. But I'm less sure that it's antiwar.

Her story centers on three American soldiers played by Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. The film eventually centers on Renner's character, Staff Sgt. William James, who is expertly trained in the defusing of roadside- and car-bombs in and around Baghdad. Given that none of these actors are stars, and also given that the two biggest names in the film (Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes) are given parts that are, in scope, not unlike the George Clooney and Woody Harrelson cameos in The Thin Red Line, the film has at least set the groundwork for effectively critiquing the wartime action it depicts. The film is structured around the last forty days of their mission, and shifts episodically from one wartime situation to another - most of which involve the defusing of bombs, but in one case depicts a shootout between the soldiers and insurgents in the countryside. This is a narrative structure that is very familiar from the history of the war film, and it is perhaps our first sign that The Hurt Locker will not transgress its genre: intense "battle" sequences are punctuated by scenes of soldiers talking of loved ones back home, of questioning the purpose of the war, and of facing the fact of their mortality.

The Hurt Locker makes it quite clear from the beginning that these soldiers are not operating with anything approaching meaningful leadership, which is the closest the film comes to qualifying as a critique of the second Gulf War. When Renner's James first meets Mackie's Sergeant JT Sanborn, the two joke over the fact that their base has been renamed "Liberty" from the former "Victory." These are labels, it is implied, that neither one of them considers significant - the rescinding of the first an admission of the Bush administration's haste in declaring victory in the war as well as the failure of governmental and military leadership to provide its soldiers with meaningful guidance beyond PR slogans, and the use of the second as a lame way to justify an ongoing presence in Iraq. Later, Geraghty's Owen Eldridge is seen admitting his fear of death to an elder colonel; the colonel is quick to provide platitudes about the nature of war, yet when we see him later, he's asking James, Sanborn, and Eldridge if he can ride along with them as a respite from his desk work, we're given an illustration of the experiential gap between the soldiers on the ground and the elder officials who serve as the mission's ineffectual, unprepared mouthpieces. Perhaps the most tidy sign of the soldiers' lack of meaning and guidance are the bombs themselves. James keeps parts of the defused bombs in a small box after each successful mission; as objects diverted from their original purpose, James looks upon them as if they are signs of a potential value he has not yet found.

In this respect, the film is quite similar to The Thin Red Line, in that it does not assume from the beginning that the presence of these soldiers, or their superiors, in a foreign land is meaningful or just. Nick Nolte's Colonel Tall, in the earlier film, is hardly unprepared to lead his men like the colonels in The Hurt Locker, but he is self-serving, and his arrogance does not grant his soldiers a purpose beyond functioning as a cog in a carefully designed machine. Given this lack of already articulated purpose (the patriotism so familiar from other war films), Malick, in the interludes between battle sequences, shows us how soldiers ruminate to themselves in first-person voice-overs, searching for their own meaning and solace. Bigelow's characters aren't given to such contemplation, but instead try out macho poses as a way of carving out meaning: in one sequence, the three soldiers mercilessly beat up each other, almost as if in an effort to find a feeling or a thought about the war they are in that is otherwise lacking.

Bigelow is more given to exteriority, then, rather than intense contemplative interiority: she is, after all, an action director first and foremost. Some of what is in this new film suggests why Bigelow is so highly regarded. Her action sequences are expert. She has mastered the classical art of decoupage, the lilting French word for the analytical breakdown of narrative situations into a seamless series of shots tightly tethered to developments in narrative. Visually, Bigelow is nimbly aware of the various tensions that emerge from the geography of her wartime situations: she cuts cleanly and intensely from close-ups of the soldier pouring over the bomb to be defused, to other soldiers guarding the perimeter, and to bystanders looking on from various points of distance (Iraqi civilians, who the film for the most part remains distant from). These sequences not only show us the expert skill with which Bigelow's soldiers undertake their missions, but also show us the larger visual context in which they do their work. These sequences betray the impressive visual dexterity and range of vision that any good maker of action films must possess.

However, it is also true that these scenes lack the haunting and absurd tragedy of Bitter Victory; indeed, the argument can be made that The Hurt Locker, on some level, and despite its critique of military leadership, makes war appealing. While I usually think divisions between style and content tend to be misguided, unfortunately Bigelow's film performs this division itself. Her nimble visual skills do not always translate to her narrative, which is limited in some damaging ways (and in ways that suggest her film may not be against the phenomenon it is depicting). Bigelow is able to put the Iraqi perspective into a visual context during the action sequences, but no psychological or social context accompanies this feat. Her Iraqis remain shadows in the background, onlookers or, more frequently, objects of suspicion. Only a young boy, that James befriends, is humanized, and even there the film is falling on a convention at least as old as Paisan (Roberto Rossellini, 1946). The young boy, too, is so thoroughly Americanized - he speaks in familiar urban lingo and sells bootleg DVDs of Hollywood movies - that he becomes less a comment on globalization and more an easy out for the film's effort to identity with the Iraqi perspective. The Hurt Locker gives us no adult Iraqi perspective on the events; only at the end of the film, when an Iraqi man, who has found himself strapped to a bomb against his will, conveys palpable fear, does an adult Iraqi emerge as a human being. Even here, however, it's a one-dimensional depiction, and does nothing to assuage the suspicion we're made to feel for Iraqis elsewhere in the film.

I can perhaps excuse even this misstep; after all, Ray's and Malick's films do not show us the German or Japanese perspective in detail (although Malick's film is perhaps the only one of this bunch that consistently insists upon regarding the enemy as a human being, to the point that the word "enemy" itself serves no function in the film's worldview). However, The Hurt Locker also miscalculates in sequences that depict the American situation back home. At the end of the film, James returns to America, having completed his missions. In one of the year's most startling edits, we shift from an intense sequence in Iraq to a long, wide-angle shot of James standing in a grocery store aisle, facing not the imposing challenge of wartime but mass-market consumerism. In this and other shots back home, we realize that James finds no meaning in his domestic situation; in Iraq, he had his bombs to defuse, and he had, at least, made the first step in exploring the Iraqi perspective of the war through his friendship with the young boy. But back home he is greeted only with a wife (Evangeline Lily) who is apparently uninterested in his wartime stories and an infant son too young to understand them. In other words, his life at home is no more intrinsically meaningful than his life in Iraq, but at least in Iraq there is the potential of purpose and value in what he was doing. James thus makes the decision to go back to Iraq on another string of missions. Bigelow has stacked the deck in favor of the character's decision: her scenes of American suburban life are like visual quotes from a Sam Mendes film, only even more empty than in the genuine article. Lily's "character" is not written to pose any kind of intellectual or emotional challenge to her husband's decision; American consumerism and quotidian life are shown to be intrinsically unsatisfying and undynamic, but The Hurt Locker does not analyze this (Bigelow leaves her skilled decoupage behind in Iraq) but rather only assumes it in order to more quickly escape to the war front (the purest and perhaps most honest expression of the war film's desire for its subject that I've ever seen in the cinema).

Both Bitter Victory and The Thin Red Line expand themselves: they are perhaps antiwar because they go beyond war, showing how the evils of war relate to human emotions and situations with which we can identify without having been in war. This makes war harder to justify, particularly in the case of Ray's film, which shows war as the result of human emotions such as jealousy, envy, and deceit, hardly states of being that a rational person would justify in quotidian life. But in its handling of the Iraqi human being and the home front, The Hurt Locker, despite its many virtues and the powerful impact it makes while it's on the screen, ultimately falls short in being about more than just the immediate experience of defusing bombs. As Renner's James heads back into the "wild west" of Iraq to defuse more bombs at the end of the film, we're not left with a strong critique of the war in our minds. We're left wanting to follow him.

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