That “The Hurt Locker” Is the Best Film of the Year

January 27, 2010

That Monsieur Hammerskjold and I disagree about the relative merit of “The Hurt Locker” is no secret to…well, the two of us.  But his underestimation of this film in such a public forum leaves me with no choice but to defend its honor.  No, this was not a planned “point-counter-point” on our part.  This is merely an argument 1) on behalf of the best film of the year and 2) that it is much better than “Point Break”.

Dash’s points are well taken.  Mrs. Bigelow’s films pursue a similar aesthetic in service of a similar question.  She is interested in the adrenaline junkie, the ultra-modern adventurer who seeks thrills for his own sake.  The gendered language is purposeful here because Bigelow foucses on a central myth of the American male: rugged, individualistic, glory-seeking despite the odds and a hostile environment.  However, it is only with “The Hurt Locker” that she has made something truly salient.

Again, I agree with Dash that “Point Break” is better than is usually thought, though our reasons are quite different.  I read that movie as a subtle yet substantial critique of one aspect of American culture through one particulr incarnation of the myth of the American male just mentioned.  To watch legitimate celebrities (Swayze and Reeves) wax pseudo-philosophical and seek faux-enlightenment at the barrel of a gun is a clever, pithy (hat-tip Dash) and ultimately withering critique of the American west coast.  The movie shows how southern California co-opts and corrupts legitimate spiritual traditions and how even those who purport to reject its plastic, disposable version of consumer capitalism are co-opted by it.  Utah, from America’s interior (and frontier at that!) is also co-opted by it.  (The fact that he is an FBI agent is extremely interesting given the disproportionate number of Mormons who enthusiastically serve in that particular agency).  Though on its surface American culture (and in this film Bigelow has her guns aimed at Hollywood) appears inane and insane, it is also built upon violence.

However, “Point Break” is limited by its gimmicky conceit.  Swayze and Reeves were both known to be sex symbols and representative of the beefcake appeal the film subverts, but their acting chops are simply not there, giving the crucial scenes an almost laughable feel.  By choosing the west coast component of American culture as her canvas, Bigelow outdoes herself by choosing a setting and condition that is more style than substance, more flash than finesse and more laughable than lamentable.

It is only by bringing the same set of questions to a moment in our all-too-recent past that Bigelow goes from titillating to triumphant.  With a group of unknown actors she is able to focus on her character types alone, unimpeded by celebrity.  (It is interesing to note that the only real names in this movie appear in unadvertised cameos: I had no idea David Morse, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes were in the movie).  And she certainly does traffic in types.  Spc. Eldridge is decidedly middle American, Eldridge being a common town name in the Midwest; Col. Cambridge (who I believe is Yale educated if my memory serves) is the Army psychologist who has been treating him.  Eldridge charges Cambridge with being overly cerebral and unaware of the psychological devastation wrought by active combat duty, particularly that of an O.E.D. unit.  But even this member of the northern elite is not immune from this war and the sacrifices it entails.  This of course only adds to Eldridge’s condition.

But the movie slowly moves from the story of a unit to one that focuses on an individual, Sgt. William James.  Named for the most recognizable architect of pragmatism, widely considered America’s unique contribution to philosophy, James (the soldier) stands in for our national character.  In a way that she never could with a character like Bodhi and plot like that of “Point Break”, Bigelow offers our country a gut-wrenching soul-check and forces us to reckon with our collective will to violence and frontiersman psyche.  George W. Bush referred to his own brand of geo-politics as “cowboy diplomacy”.  Bigelow holds the mirror up to our faces and asks us what drives us to seek adrenaline in the way we do?  Is American pioneering spirit heroic and self-less?  Barbaric and self-destructive?  She is more interested in asking the question than providing real answers, but to my mind that is great movie-making.

“The Hurt Locker” is one of the most arresting and psychologically gripping films I’ve ever seen.  This is all the more impressive because there are long stretches of tedium where little happens and time simply needs to be outrun so that the members of Bravo Company can finally go home.  In so doing, Bigelow has accomplished a tremendous feat: she provides us movie-goers, safe in the comfortable, reclining chairs of our local multiplex, the vicarious sensation of what it truly means to fight a modern war.  She has forced us to ask, when our own government was hiding the bodies of dead soldiers from the public eye, what price we pay and if we truly understand the cost.  That she accomplishes this in an apolitical manner given such a highly politicized war makes it all the more impressive.

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