Film Review | Sunday, 07 March 2010

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Here comes the boom

In the wee hours of tomorrow morning, some us will be glued to the screen, watching the Oscar ceremony of 2010 unfold. At the centre of this year’s Academy Award competiton lies an ex-wife/husband tussle, as James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ and Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘The Hurt Locker’ are the main contenders in key categories including the inexplicably bloated ‘Best Picture’ slot (now containing 10, as opposed to five nominations) and ‘Best Director’. The films themselves could not be more different: one is an escapist sci-fi fantasy thriving on new innovations in 3D technolgy, the other is a gritty as gritty can be war drama that quite literally takes no prisoners.
In the summer of 2004, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) of Bravo Company form part of a small counterforce specifically trained to handle the homemade bombs, or Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which are responsible for over half of American hostile deaths and have killed thousands of Iraqis. A high-pressure, high-stakes assignment, the job leaves no room for mistakes, as they learn when they lose their team leader, SSG Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) on a mission. When Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is sent in to replace him, Sanborn and Eldridge are less than pleased by his swaggering, reckless attitude. But as the final month of Bravo Company rolls along, the ambiguous James proves to be more and more elusive. Nobody can deny that his methods, while unorthodox, are effective, but he seems less concerned with being a good soldier than with the adrenaline fix that comes with bomb disposal.
Bigelow, whose films, despite being generically diverse (cyberpunk techno-thriller with ‘Strange Days’, vampire drama with ‘Near Dark’, crime action with ‘Point Break’) all boast an uncompromisingly taut emotional space. Protagonists are taken to very dark, uncomfortable spaces, and left to wriggle out – or not – by themselves. The tight-knit trio of the bomb disposal unit, knowing that the slightest slip would have disastrous consequences, is an ideal apotheosis for her modo da fare. The increasingly popular, ‘documentary style’ shaky-cam is employed, but as opposed to being just a gimmick, it seems to find a perfect fit with Bigelow’s style. We are plunged into the action head first, and left squirming but, most important of all, entertained throughout.
This isn’t a war film with big speeches, panoramic battle sequences and posturing heroism. The script by journalist Mark Boal, who was embedded with a bomb squad, appears to have authenticity firmly covered, thought several veterans have expressed their dissatisfaction with the way important details are handled. But the film draws upon ground covered by some of the best examples of the war genre – ‘Platoon’, ‘Full Metal Jacket’, ‘Jarhead’. It’s a microcosmic focus on war, where mental instability is never too far behind. Renner’s performance is effortlessly edgy, and Mackie’s pragmatic Sanborn and the on-the-verge-of-caving Eldridge, who provides just as much tension, only in an opposite direction, nicely offset his character.
The grander themes, when they do surface, don’t appear jarring at all, because when we’ve been thrust with these characters in the middle of the desert, high emotional stakes are implied. A tearful Sanborn confesses to James that he wants to get out of Iraq, and to ‘have a son’, his sober façade finally cracking. James, a divorcee with a son of his own, on the other hand, feels nothing more strongly than the death drive of bomb disposal.
In choosing to focus on the psychological dimension, as well as re-appropriating bomb disposal missions as little more than gripping set pieces, Bigalow creates a curiously apolitical war-beast. But the fact that everything is pared down to near-intolerable visceral perfection probably makes the experience a lot more engaging than most cinematic stabs at the horrors of war.

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