Going to have to face it

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker opens with a quote from Chris Hedges on the way we become addicted to war, an addiction intensely–almost lovingly–scrutinized in both her tightly-wound action film and Armando Iannucci’s tightly-wound satire In the Loop. Both films work pretty well on their own merits, as exemplars of their respective genres, but I was struck by the way each seemed to strive toward something more, toward an indictment of that addiction. Their methods, however tonally distinct, I think lead to the same impasse: both films are caught–and catch us–inside the addiction.

Bigelow and writer/journalist Mark Boal skip the exposition, don’t follow the well-worn rut marched by so many prior war films where we meet the ragtag troop members who will, via the hell of war, bond. Instead, we’re immediately in it: a bomb disposal team, at a site, with a malfunctioning robot and a street full of potential dangers needing our eye. I was struck–in this scene and throughout–by how fucking brilliant Bigelow is with action/suspense. She has an almost unerring eye for the way to shoot and cut so that we feel both the full scope of the space in which the action takes place and the psychologically-claustrophobic sense of constriction that occurs once the action kicks in–we know where we are, and we feel increasingly trapped. I was further struck by how the film can create a visceral identification with these soldiers with so few of the expository tics and ‘types of most Hollywood films: instead of bonding with the characters, we’re bonding with their emotions & affect in the experience. ‘Cause damn if you aren’t sweating, too, with stomach acids churning, blinking nervously with every flash of movement or fwump in the background soundtrack.

They then (minor, unimportant spoiler) kill off a big star, in scene one, and I never even really caught the character’s name–names are almost irrelevant: we see a few clearly distinguishable soldiers, and we keep our eyes on (and emotions with) them. Insofar as the film plays one white-knuckle setpiece after another, it is a brilliant evocation of war.

Insofar as we step a little back to try and get more of a psychological understanding of the impact of war on these men, particularly the foolhardy bomb-disabling protagonist William James (the excellent Jeremy Renner), the film loses its footing, clumps around in big boots. Insofar as these men lack the tools to make sense of what they’re feeling, and to communicate fully and meaningfully about what they feel and what those feelings mean, you might say that Bigelow & Boal absolutely capture something about the use of booze and bruising and profanity to create a bond between the inarticulate men. But rather than evoking the problem, the film seems to repeat and reiterate–to reproduce–the failure to make sense of the addictive force of war. I would almost say the film is as inarticulate about what produces the addiction–or how to analyze, reflect upon, critique its causes and consequences–as the characters. Instead, the film relies upon a helluva resource: Bigelow’s ability to reproduce the feel of war and violence. That said, and I’ll return to this in a moment, I *enjoyed* the film; rather than helping me to see the addiction to war, the film seems (as Truffaut famously argued) to create or compound that addiction in its viewers. The film is inside the addiction, and feeding it. (This is NOT a critique of the film, as much as a critical challenge the film either doesn’t rise to or simply sidesteps. P.S. Anthony Mackie is astounding, as good as or better than Renner.)

In a wholly different fashion, In the Loop reproduces that entrapment, literalizes and enacts its title, using a bleak but almost blase irony. We follow the build-up to war in Britain and America, not the Iraq war but one very much like it in most every particular, right down to an Alastair-Campbell-like aide to the PM (one Malcolm Tucker, played with furious foul-mouthed brio by the previously-mildmannered-in-Local-Hero Peter Capaldi), diplomatic/intelligence services in a rush to war but trying hard to appear circumspect and cautious, and a callous and ruthless deployment of righteously-indignant bullshit to justify everything (from the rationale for war to the casual cheating-on-a-girlfriend by one of the film’s hapless arrogant peons). It is a film about petty people, engaged in the most petty bouts of one-upsmanship and infighting, whose self-interested pursuits set the stage for and compound the systemic incompetence of the two countries’ foreign policy. What the film gets right, I think, is that ironist’s vision of how the Loop enfolds, and is reproduced by, every action even when undertaken with a modicum of resistance and principle. (And let’s emphasize modicum: the film also has that brutal ironist’s vision of a world where almost no one can even define a principle, let alone act thereupon.) Like Bigelow’s sappers, acclimated so effectively to their jobs/environment that they literally cannot imagine escaping it, Iannucci’s pols jockey and jerk almost reflexively without any critical reflexivity, unable to see how the war effort is just a particularly explicit evocation of the aggression and power which fuels every policy, every office, every conversation in their lives. The addiction to war is here sublimated in snubs over a big boardroom table or snarling epithets about lubricated horse cocks, but I believe watching the film we are caught up in a rather brilliant illustration of how war happens.

And, like Bigelow’s film, Iannucci’s succeeds rather brilliantly as an entertainment depicting this process. It’s often riotously funny. But, like Bigelow’s film (and this, too, is not really a criticism as much as an observation about the limits of its achievement), Loop can only depict the meaninglessness of the addiction, even as its every set-up has us sitting on the edge of our seats for the next beautifully-corrosive bit of dialogue, the next wonderfully offensive putdown. Like when I watched Bigelow’s film, what I wanted was MORE of the illustration–that was the fun stuff to watch. (Unlike Locker, Loop doesn’t really try to step back or examine the psychology or sociology which might produce and endlessly reproduce the systemic addiction to aggression in politics. It’s content with the unblinking gaze at the aggression.)

I guess in my longwinded way I’m trying to see something similar about two films we might call anti-war, something which suggests why it’s so hard to make an anti-war film. They produce their respective spectatorial pleasures using the tools which are themselves part of that addiction. The adrenaline of the action sequence or the acid-tongued take-down fires us up, and the films in producing (and feeding) this desire become kind of limited in their ability to challenge the addiction.

(I can imagine ways they could–when Renner’s sergeant briefly goes home, he is shown feeling at sea with his wife and child, but one only need look at news reports of the incidences of abuse and suicide on bases all around the country to imagine how the consequences of the war addiction might have been pushed beyond the film’s current purview, into a far tougher vision of that family relationship as it is affected by his wartime experience. And Loop nods to Strangelove but lacks that film’s giddy apocalyptic irony–by sticking to its more “realistic” depiction, it almost precludes opportunities to exploit the subversive potential of irony. Maybe.)

Both films are recommended. But I’m curious about how others see them….

14 thoughts on “Going to have to face it”

  1. Paragraph two is right on. This is one hell of a tense and enervating cinematic experience. It is so well cut and shot and, yeah, we are right in the middle of it for 125 minutes. I too was on the edge of my seat; the time flies by; but, and this is key, I wanted it to fly by (the film made me nervous not thrilled). As far as Bigelow & Boal’s ability to unpack the “addiction” to war (or at least one character’s perverse commitment to the one thing he knows how to do well), that didn’t quite gel for me either (the war is a drug reference didn’t entirely make sense given the dramatic action). Then again, forgetting the quote that opens the film, I didn’t care. Far from seeing this film as anti-war, I would argue it is, at best, ideologically neutral (which for me is problematic). It doesn’t glamorize nor does it critique. Mostly it just shows. Maybe that is due to Boal having been embedded with a similar EOD team during the Iraq war.

    David Morse: always brilliant. And as I watched, the one scene I would want to closely examine if I were ever to use this in class is the boozing and bruising sequence back at the camp between Renner and Mackie. And god bless Evangeline Lilly (I could type that name all day), but anybody who wants to leave that lady behind for another tour in a world of hurt is simply fucked up and missing a screw (AA or NA or WA ain’t going to solve that level of stupidity). They probably should have cast someone a bit more weathered. Still, Mike’s point about the incidents of abuse within military bases might have made for a more gritty approach to this coda sequence. I will add, however, that Renner staring incomprehensibly at a wall of breakfast cereals–which seemed to go on forever–was one of the most haunting and troubling images in the entire film.

  2. i’m surprised there’s been so little discussion of this film–i guess i’m not the only one on the blog who doesn’t get out to new releases.

    i watched this last night. i liked it a lot, but i think i may have had my expectations set too high by the reviews. it certainly is the best film i’ve seen about/set during the iraq war, and it’s a tense procedural. but i couldn’t say what it all adds up to. by this i mean not that i don’t know what its “message” about (the) war is (i’m glad it doesn’t have an explicit one, actually) but that i’m not really sure what the film is after: a psychological portrait of one man? of the effects of the claustrophobia of war on three different personality types? also: is the register meant to be realist or allegorical? i’m leaning towards the latter despite bigelow’s statements that she’s aiming for nothing more than reportage. the bomb unit seems to always be adrift by themselves, during the day, at night, in close quarters, out in the desert; death is always remote–bigelow cuts them and us off from any chain of command or context that would suggest a specific structure of cause and effect or meaning. she also doesn’t dwell on the thriller aspects of most hollywood films of the genre: we never find out if the incidental characters on the fringes of the bomb squad’s work have any connection to the bombs (who are those men on the minaret? why is the other guy videotaping them?). all of this suggests that the film is interested in war as literal existential crisis. defuse or die (most of the time), kill or be killed (the sniper sequence in the desert). i agree with mike’s reading above: the film is very good at recreating a feel of war, but it doesn’t seem to take any kind of critical position on it.

    and as good as renner is, the film’s near exclusive focus on the william james character is a flaw. yes, i’m interested in why he does what he does (though i find all the “son in peril” stuff to be hamfisted) but i’m also interested in why sanborn does what he does. all he wants is to survive the rotation and ship out; he doesn’t want to be killed by james’ hollywood familiar maverickery–but out in the desert he moves without a second thought into a position where he could be killed suddenly (as the man before him in that position just has), and he stays there silent, not flinching.

    and yes, evangeline lilly is a bad casting decision–though i suspect that she and the other bigger film names in small parts are there largely to help get the film funded. for a moment i thought i was in that episode of lost in which kate almost loses a small child in a grocery store.

  3. Okay, I’ll chime in here. I think I’m somewhere between reynolds and arnab. I agree, this is a very well directed film. But arnab’s question “what’s it all about?” is apt. I too wondered why I was being asked to spend so much time with William (including time at home, cleaning the gutters). It’s as if the film can’t resist getting a few little points in, here and there. For example, the scene in which Eldridge gets put on the helicopter, near the end of the film: whence this newfound clarity? He gets shot in the leg, and now he’s reading to us notes from the film’s publicity packet?

    That’s Guy Pearce who gets blown to bits (could see it coming for a mile, as we know that’s not the guy in the suit from the ads and trailers…also could see coming for a mile the doc being blown up, but hey, you can see coming for a mile anyone blowing up…it’s Iraq).

    There’s something nagging me about this film, something that’s not quite right. There’s no doubting her technical skill, but Bigelow has made an unusual choice. She’s adamant about not having a critical point of view of the war. But she has to have something in its place–at the very least an awareness that one cannot make a film that way.

  4. sunhee still has a bunch of it left to see, so i think i’m going to re-watch most of it with her, and who knows maybe she’ll post about it too. mike, jeff: any thoughts on john and my responses? or has it been too long since you saw it?

    netflix tells me chris and gio have it at home, and i’m looking forward to reading their takes as well.

  5. Chris has had it since it was released on DVD. Chris’s spouse insists on watching it together but has not found time to do so in the past month. Chris thinks he should have a separate Netflix account.

  6. I haven’t had much time to write, but your respective points were well-taken. The film doesn’t just avoid opinions about the war, its studious attempt to be non-partisan confused its at-home segment, and there’s no getting around the dialectic between the way Bigelow sells the tension and the way the film wanders aimlessly around any purpose or understanding. I think the opening quote from Hedges, the stuff with Renner (& Lilly) at home — they water the film down. If it was just a tense, discomforting engagement with James’ actions, if it kept not just that apparent lack of a clear opinion inside the rigorous point of view wholly focused inside “war”…. I think the film would have been more incisive. By circling around a more explicit attempt to have a purpose, they lost the purpose. (In order to save the anti-war message, they really needed to destroy the anti-war message.)

  7. First, this article is very interesting. Arnab, I would push toward your suggestion that the film works best (or could have) as it explores the fictional “effects of the claustrophobia of war on three different personality types.” That’s the movie that I kind of wanted to see, but the action narrows in on James’ character and marginalizes (to a point) the others. Maybe Bigelow and Boal are interested in what makes a soldier tick; what makes a soldier come back for more. I was just as interested in Sanborn (Mackie) and Eldridge (Geraghty). Indeed, what makes a soldier recoil and retreat? I also found the subplot involving the Iraqi boy who hawked DVDs to be a bit too precious and didactic (and James’ trip into town to seek out the culprit(s) was highly contrived). And though I did realize that entire thread set us up for James’ further withdrawal into his own personal hurt locker, I wasn’t sure it was needed. The scene in the Iraqi home, however, was fascinatingly ambiguous. The symmetry between Sanborn realizing he wanted to be a father and James’ ignoring the boy upon his return (all Iraqi kids look alike I guess) and his own family is probably a bit too tidy if closely examined. Ultimately, for me, the film was all about the craft and the way Bigelow generated immeasurable tension and anxiety. I’ll argue The Messenger may be the better fiction to explore the effects of the war in Iraq, but Bigelow concocted something truly electric.

  8. i wondered about the realism of the military situations, but that doesn’t really bother me too much. a film can reproduce an emotional experience without getting the physical details right. the bits that bothered me were the parts of the narrative that seemed to push a somewhat conventional understanding of james who works much better as a cipher. i guess i’m repeating mike and your points: but exactly the bit with the iraqi kid and then his own kid.

    i do want to watch it again though because i’m now wondering whether in the process the film doesn’t actually complicate the old “fathers protecting sons” trope, whereby james’ hyper concern for the iraqi kid, beckham stands in for his relationship with his own distant son. the bits with beckham push this but i wonder if i misread the bit at the end with his own boy–is james telling him that the one thing that he gets pleasure from now is not actually even his son, but his deadly job?

    there are other details that i’m also less sure about now: for example, in the opening scene is the bomb set off by the guy with the cell-phone that the solidiers see or is it by another guy with a cell-phone? watching it, i thought it played into the “every iraqi is a threat” narrative so familiar from the right-hand side of the dial which justifies the killing of civilians as the result of confusion caused by the insurgents. if they’d shot the guy with the phone instead of telling him to set it down, guy pearce would be alive; but maybe it’s the wrong guy.

    i don’t know that these things would change my slight unease about the film, but i am curious.

  9. at arnab’s last post: i do think we are meant to think that the one thing will james gets pleasure from is his job (after he says that, the movie cuts directly to his returning to iraq) and i do think that we are meant to think that the guy with the cellphone we see is the guy with the cellphone who blows up the guy pierce character. why aforementioned guy should have waited until then to blow up the IED when he could have done more obvious harm earlier is mysterious, but whatever. i think that when eldrich stresses over the difference the trigger of his gun would have made to the guy pierce’s character’s life, he’s gesturing at the fact that it is the guy he failed to kill who got his buddy blown up.

    but these are minor details. i agree with what everyone says, because it seems to me the differences are minor. it’s a great movie to watch, but not a great anti-war movie. maybe its pleasure is, after all (in jeff’s words), “all about the craft and the way Bigelow generated immeasurable tension and anxiety.” the faces of the three guys are beautiful and beautifully expressive. some scenes are simply amazing. the “walk” is a great action-film element. the camera pace, extremely effective and mesmerizing. i also wish the great acting of anthony mackie had gone recognized. he — and his character — keeps the movie on the ground.

    i don’t want to sound reductive. there is a ton of really nice human stuff, namely, for me: james’ resistance to kill people. he’s not just a reckless adrenaline junkie, he’s also very human. maybe that’s incongruous (i think it is, and it did bother me a little), but it’s nice. the scene with the unwilling suicide bomber is non pareil, not only vis a vis in the tension it engenders, but especially in james’ refusal to give up on the poor guy. he also refuses to shoot the taxi driver even when you know others would have shot him in a heartbeat (what “others” would have done is conveyed with great succinctness by the david morse character when he leaves a savable iraqi man to die on the road). so maybe bigelow is giving us the other version of this war, she’s giving us the good guys, the guys with feelings. this is fine by me.

    another amazing and human scene is when james refuses (again; he does a lot of refusing) to blow up the dead child. no reason not to do it, but he needs to carry the body out as a human being carrying another human being, and he does.

    in fact, he’s remarkably tender throughout, consoling his buddies even though he keeps putting them in danger, pursuing leads even though it’s not his job, caring about the little soccer boy, etc. his character is from the first portrayed as a very tender, human, connected character.

    that he can’t connect with his family at home is part of the story. i guess war brings out a certain humanity in people that does not translate in the day-in-day-out of normal at-home life. maybe some people, especially young men at loose ends, can function only as heroes.

    but i don’t think bigelow wants to go much deeper than that. alongside john and arnab, i don’t even think this is an anti-war film. the best anti-war films to come out of iraq seem to me to be generation kill, stop-loss, and in the valley of elah. generation kill is so about the mess of the beginning of the iraq war that it doesn’t even seem to be generalically anti-war but specifically against this stupid-fuck war and the administration that started it. the other two take place at home and talk about the disasters wrought on soldiers’ mind by combat.

    i agree with mike that you cannot do an anti-war movie while showing handsome guys shooting at people in bare-knuckles action sequences. and i also agree that there is something doomed about the anti-war film as a genre (is there something doomed about any idealistic film?), in the sense that it’s either going to be didactic or it’s going to be an exaltation of action and coolness. me, when i watched this film, i was all about being there and walking the crunchy ground with a gun making cool clicking sounds in my hands, cooler than ice just out of the freezer and with a jeremy renner grin on my face, so i guess if this movie is anti-war its anti-war message got lost on me. hell, i was HAPPY when james returned to iraq (the conversation he has with the divorced live-in mother of his son suggests that he doesn’t have to). am i the only one?

    still, like all of you, i really enjoyed watching this and could have watched twice as much of it.

  10. i cringed at the stupidity and deleted it in the 5 seconds arnab inexplicably allows us (just to be clear, i wish we could edit our own comments all the time). your joke, though, is very funny john!

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