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….