Hollywood loves a good war - the heroism, the pagentry, the tragedy, the acres of gleaming hardware, the loud explosions. This is the stuff of box office dreams. Never mind that many in Hollywood would consider themselves part of the liberal elite. The merchandise is often thinly veiled PR for the Armed Forces who lend out the armoured cars and planes to any movie with the right credentials. It has always struck me as ironic that an institution so intent on discriminating against homosexuals should have helped spawn movies that are so ra-ra pro-war that they trip into self-parody and camp. From TOP GUN to PEARL HARBOR, we all know that the girls are secondary to the guys and guns.
Of course, in Hollywood's soul, she is the last bastion of the liberal elite. There is, apparently, no contradiction in Clooney, Damon, diCaprio et al jetting round the world, belching out burnt jet fuel, to promote films persuading us to save the planet. And alongside the war-epics in which the US wins World War Two single-handedly (Enigma, anyone? Stalingrad?) there is another type of war film, typically made by independent film-makers or documentary-makers. These films look at micro-impact of war on the individual human being. The savagery of large-scale destruction is made understandable by seeing the degradation of an individual. Prime examples are CATCH-22, THE THIN RED LINE or, in a movie that brilliantly combined both big explosions AND a soul, APOCALYPSE NOW.
The Second Gulf War has been about as confused for Hollywood as it's been for the policymakers. No-one knows why we're at war in Iraq when the Taliban was sponsored by the Afghani government. No-one knows whether anyone actually ever thought there were Weapons of Mass Destruction. We know we won, four years ago, but it doesn't feel like victory. It's a war without clear-cut dates, campaigns and larger-than-life generals. It's not an epic invasion but a dog-fight from street to street, where insurgents blow up soldiers with Improvised Explosive Devices and our Heroic Boys in the Field are actually paid mercenaries accountable to no-one we vote for.
Clearly, the epic approach wasn't going to cut it. But what of Indie soul-searching? We've had some decent small films come out, each with a different take: GRACE IS GONE (grief); WAR INC (satire); IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (police procedural); REDACTED (fictional recreation). None of them have taken any money although garnering decent enough reviews. And now comes the feted THE HURT LOCKER, and the buzz has begun: is this a war film that WILL FINALLY TAKE SOME MONEY? Of course, no-one can actually say that (or maybe they can in Variety).
Before watching the film I thought it's chances of pulling off both good reviews and receipts were high. The writer is Mark Boal, and you don't get more credible than having been an embedded journalist in Iraq. The director, however, is no bleeding heart liberal but a woman who knows how to direct tense thrillers, Kathryn Bigelow of K-19 WIDOWMAKER fame. Could this be the perfect balance between action and intellect? I also liked the idea of telling the story of Iraq by focusing on a bomb-denotation squad, and showing the politics only incidentally, through the impact of the campaign on the three common soldiers at the heart of the film. The film didn't disappoint. It's tense, compelling and a rare case where flashy camerawork (four hand-held cameras working simulatenously) helped rather than distracted from the subject-matter. In watching Bigelow's movie you get an idea of the futility of the campaign, the danger the soldiers have to live with, and the inhospitable terrain. Not only is it technically well-made and genuinely tense - the movie is also very well acted by three relatively unknown character actors: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. It's worth watching, without a doubt. That's not to say it's one of the greatest war films, or even the best on the Second Gulf War. To my mind, nothing to date beats the visceral intensity and Gonzo brilliance of REDACTED. I also athought the marquee name cameos were distracting and that some of the dialogue was hackneyed. Still, overall, Bigelow and Boal have created a war film that shows, rather than tells, of the horror of war and the impossibility of going back. Kudos.
THE HURT LOCKER played Venice (where it was beaten in competition by THE WRESTLER) and Toronto 2008 and was released in Italy last year. It opened earlier this year in the USA, Indonesia and Iceland. It opens this weekend in Germany and Austria and on August 28th in the UK. It opens on September 17th in Portugal, on September 23rd in France and Norway; and on October 23rd in Estonia. It opens on January 8th 2010 in Taiwan.