Saturday, June 27, 2009

Finally: A Movie About Iraq That Doesn't Completely Suck

Over the years there have been at least a half dozen movies about the war in Iraq, seemingly all from the anti-war crowd, and they all wound up as colossal bombs.

Well, we now have a movie seemingly free of politics and it's getting good reviews.
Hollywood, for all its liberal talk, continues to be an all-boys club. Yet Kathryn Bigelow hasn't only made a place for herself there, she'd done it by blithely avoiding the femme-film ghetto of indie tragedies and making terrific, testosterone-pumped action pictures that have impressed even the toughest fans.

After all, what fanboy director wouldn't give up a few of his mint-edition comic books to be able to brag that he made the cult hits "Point Break" and "Near Dark"? Even Bigelow's misses - the apocalyptic "End of Days," the Harrison-Ford-as-a-Russian "K-19: The Widowmaker" - had interesting things to say about risk and reward, duty and loyalty.

Bigelow's newest film, "The Hurt Locker" is her smartest and most suspenseful yet.

It's set in Iraq but it's not really a film about the Iraq war - something that should be said early, since that's one genre no one's embraced lately. Instead, "The Hurt Locker" is about men under pressure, forced to rely on one another, and how that changes when a new boss who loves the rush of risk enters the picture.

These men are soldiers - bomb disposal experts, in fact - but they could be cops or fireman (or the cavalrymen in John Ford's classic "Fort Apache"). It doesn't matter. What does matter is that their new boss is an adrenaline junkie who never feels more alive than in those moments when he's close to death.

And the closer he walks to it, the closer he drags all of them to it too, risking their lives along with his.

Bigelow has always had an eye for good compositions and big moments, but her approach here is grimier, grittier, handheld and painfully realistic. There are none of those movie moments built around countdown clocks or red-wire/green-wire dilemmas; it's all sweat and shouting and men working quickly while other men watch, frozen in the shadows.

Bigelow's three main characters are quickly drawn, but the skill of her actors makes them archetypes rather than cliches. Brian Geraghty is the young soldier barely holding it together; Anthony Mackie is the by-the-book sergeant who just wants everybody to make it home alive. And, in a star-making performance, Jeremy Renner is Staff Sgt. James, the cocky bomb expert who puts everyone's life on the line.

It's an interesting point, and it's at the heart of the film: Is fear sometimes just another word for "survival instinct"? Is courage just one more side-effect of having a death wish? Bigelow's movie (based on a script by journalist Mark Boal, who was embedded with a bomb unit in Iraq) suggests that the motivations are just as tangled as the wires these men need to cut through. And just as dangerous.
Here's a trailer.

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