When Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker, swept the Academy Awards, it was a signal triumph for a plucky independent movie on a grave topical subject. Directed by a woman and made in Jordan without the usual cooperation from the Department of Defense, the movie was not released during awards rush at the end of the year but in the summer, ordinarily a time for mindless comedies and action films. Very much an action film itself, it reached out to a mass audience but did not find it, despite a sheaf of excellent reviews. In no way polemical, set in 2004 at a low point in the war, it was full of gripping life-and-death scenes that neither glorified the war as a scene of heroism nor condemned it for the political deception, wretched planning, and wanton loss of life that made those years so disastrous. Instead, like the best World War II movies, it focused on the tensions within a small group of men doing a dangerous but essential job.
Most popular films trying to engage weighty matters like war or politics inevitably personalize the conflicts but also resort to conventional thriller devices that trivialize the subject or dispose of it superficially. Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, built around a Tony Blair-like figure and his clueless aide, a ghost writer helping him with his memoirs, works beautifully for an hour and half, but then devolves into a far-fetched thriller hinging on the machinations of the CIA. Jim Sheridan’s Brothers, based on an earlier Danish film, recounts the absorbing story of a marine officer, presumed dead in Afghanistan, who returns home, haunted by something terrible he did as a captive there, only to find that his wastrel brother has gotten very close to his wife. Though sensitively directed and impressively acted by a first-rate cast, the movie is subverted by contrived turns of plot, a few lurid scenes, and the threadbare motif of the traumatized, emotionally unhinged war veteran.
One problem is that cataclysmic events like the September 11, 2001, attacks or the Iraq War received exhaustive media coverage. Journalistic yet fictionalized accounts have little to add, and audiences, already depressed by what actually happened, have little desire to revisit it. They stay away in droves.
Some war movies, along with many movies on political subjects, are simply thrillers from start to finish, with ample suspense but little purchase on reality. But The Hurt Locker, written by a reporter (Mark Boal) who was embedded with a unit dismantling explosive devices, brings the war home in a different way. Unfolding at a time when Iraq itself had become one large minefield for American forces, it opens with a breathtaking prologue showing a soldier killed while trying to disarm such a device. His replacement, played by Jeremy Renner, is a classic American figure, the loner, the cowboy, the war lover. Gifted with foolhardy courage and resourceful know...
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