The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Hurt Locker delivers tense reflection

By Torrey MacGregor

In 2010, it is tempting, particularly on college campuses like Grinnell’s, to discuss war in abstract terms. Not only does this distant treatment of warfare allow for sharper criticism of military and, indeed, national policies, but it creates a space in which one is able consider the ramifications of warfare without necessarily considering the individuals involved. Great war films work to bridge this gap, and one of this weekend’s movies, “The Hurt Locker,” brilliantly portrays the subject matter of the Iraq War without didacticism or condescension, two elements to which many films concerning military combat fall prey.

Though director Kathryn Bigelow (formerly Mrs. James Cameron) has been making films for nearly 30 years, “The Hurt Locker” is undoubtedly her magnum opus. It was one of the most lauded films of 2009, earning awards from a multitude of organizations and festivals. The movie recently swept the 2010 BAFTA awards, winning best film, director, original screenplay, editing, cinematography and sound. It is expected to be a major contender at the Academy Awards, where it was nominated for Best Picture and Director, as well. One of the greatest selling points of the film is the cinematography, and Barry Ackroyd (“United 93,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”) outdoes himself with his jarringly naturalistic, neo-realistic style.

The camera is perpetually shaking and jerking about, which adds a level of intensity lacking from many high-budget war films. Performances from previously unknown actors reveal the darker sides of humans at war, including a conversation between two American soldiers regarding the possibility of murdering their sergeant. The film is filled with these quieter, deeper ruminations on the nature of war, and they serve to contrast nicely with the high-intensity shootout scenes.

What really brings this film to the head of the pack, though, is its ability to deftly illustrate what Freud calls “the Uncanny.” The theme of alienation runs rampant throughout the film, and the most haunting moments concern themselves with making the familiar terribly unfamiliar. Rusty “Pepsi” signs swing from Iraqi doorways amidst firefights, U.S.-made Ford sedans are laden with explosives, and the sergeant maneuvers his space-suit-like bomb gear through the post-apocalyptic neighborhoods of Baghdad. Storywriter Mark Boal, who worked as a freelance journalist with an American bomb squad in Iraq, hypes up this sense of being a stranger in a strange land through his icy dialogue (“What are we shooting at?!” “I don’t know!”), and his use of language barriers to convey a sense of estrangement. Characters often communicate through hand gestures, which highlight both linguistic differences as well as the painfully-human ability to find a common ground for interaction.

Although some Iraq War veterans have spoken out about the film’s unsuccessful attempt at accurately portraying life in combat, “The Hurt Locker” is at once a white-knuckle thriller and a rumination on the human side of modern warfare. Technology, surprisingly, is not always treated kindly, as the three soldiers are constantly on the lookout for cell-phone detonators and civilians with video cameras and access to YouTube. An opening scene that features a faulty robot and references to fantastic representations of modern warfare in videogames serve to pull the audience from the comfortable distance at which they might have previously been considering war. Though the film may not be a wholly accurate account of life on the front lines, its beauty lies in its ability to bridge the gaps of civilian and soldier, of American and Iraqi, and of machine and mankind. From a person who doesn’t really like war films, this is definitely not one to miss.

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