Virtually no one watched the Hollywood films that were made about the war in Iraq up till now, certainly not the Bureau Chief. But a film about that war, “The Hurt Locker”, was just nominated for nine Academy Awards and its director, Katheryn Bigelow, won this year’s Directors Guild Award, which is often the precursor to the Directing Oscar. The film’s box office was only moderate but it was not expensive and should get a second run after the Oscar hoopla. Why is this film’s fate different from the others, most of which dealt with returning veterans?
First, it’s a very good film, well made and smart, but it also does a couple of things that none of the other films did (judging by their reviews). It’s a procedural. The screenwriter, Mark Boal, was embedded with a U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit in Iraq and reported on it. People are fascinated by certain types of processes. “How do they do that?” I assume that is behind the success of the various “CSI” shows on TV, not that I’ve ever seen any. (Only a bureaucrat as amazing as The Chief could have insights into so many things he hasn’t actually seen.) And bomb disposal has an obvious aspect that crime scene investigation doesn’t have. AT ANY MOMENT THE BOMB MAY BLOW UP!
By concentrating on one small unit with a very specialized task, Bigelow allows the audience to experience the Iraq war in an intimate and believable way without having to deal directly with the overwhelming historical fact that the war is immoral, illegal and was launched on the basis of cynical lies. But at the same time she does not ignore the toll taken on the Iraqis and on the Americans. It’s very skillfully done.
It’s a truism that you can’t make an anti-war film by showing war because even if you follow a bunch of soldiers who are all eventually killed (this goes back to “All Quiet on the Western Front”) an 18 year old boy watching it will always say, “But I will be the one who survives and I will have passed my test”. And then he enlists.
Bigelow deals with this by not attempting to make an anti-war document but by examining the attraction of war. Clearly the main character, played by Jeremy Renner, is addicted to the adrenaline rush. His fellow soldiers are not and fear he will get them killed. We have to follow to find out. Kathryn Bigelow has been on the edge of making a totally successful film for her entire career and now she’s done it. Brava.