Thursday, September 24, 2009

the best war movie never made

A few nights ago, I finally managed to watch The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's nearly flawless movie about American sappers in Iraq. For the first hour and a half or so, I was completely riveted. Bigelow's directing and erstwhile journalist Mark Boal's writing were pitch perfect, and kept the suspense taut as a tripwire as the plot progressed from the tension of disarming bombs to the greater moral dilemma of policing an unfriendly population and identifying the insurgents among the innocents.

I'll try not to spoil too much of the movie--and, anyway, there's not much here that I'm skillful enough to describe; the way Bigelow ratchets up the tension really has to be watched for you to get it--but consider this master stroke. About a third of the way into the movie, the sapper team is out in the field when they run across a stranded jeep with a bunch of armed soldiers in front of it in what the GIs call "Haji gear."

There's a tense standoff in which Sgt William James--the loose cannon played with great nuance by Jeremy Renner--holds a man whose face is obscured by an Arab head scarf at gunpoint and repeatedly orders him to put his gun down and put his hands behind his head. The "Haji" finally complies, asking in an Oxbridge accent whether he can take off the scarf, and reveals the face of Ralph Fiennes. The allusion to the stylish introduction of the hero in countless war movies of the John Wayne type is unmistakable, and because Bigelow has been relentlessly knotting your gut with apprehension that somebody is going to blow himself up disarming a bomb for the past 30 minutes, it comes like a wave of relief. Ok, you think, now the fun is going to start.

Ten seconds later, a soundless sniper bullet cuts down one of the team, beginning a tense, fifteen minute skirmish where the enemy is a barely glimpsed shadow in the sand 800 meters away. Five minutes into it, Ralph Fiennes, the bluff hero in the style of Errol Flynn, catches his own soundless, anti-climactic bullet, and dies without a word.

I was already half-convinced this was the best war movie ever made at that point, just for the way it scared the piss out of me--so much better than the blab blab blab of Saving Private Ryan. But as the movie progressed, it got even more clever, more complex, and actually communicated some fairly strong emotional perceptions about the guilt of killing in battle, etc. (Again, better to see the film than to read me banging on about it).

Honestly, I felt like standing up and clapping at my DVD player.

Then, when it was almost over, about 2 hours in, without a single misstep, somebody pissed the whole thing away. After a stunningly tense climax that communicated clearly the whole dilemma of the soldier fighting against guerillas--all without a lot of talkie baloney--suddenly the two main characters get back into the Hum-V and start chatting away like they're on the couch with Oprah.

"Why do you put on the [bomb disposal] suit and take the risks?" --or something equally ridiculous and on the nose--says Sgt. Sanborn (played brilliantly up to this point by another actor I'd never heard of called Anthony Mackie).

Sgt. Jame / Renner wrenches himself into knots trying to make the scene work with his answer. But there's no way out. The writing is suddenly so utterly obvious and terrible, it's difficult to believe. I'm no Hollywood insider, but my deep research into the business (i.e. many hours spent watching Entourage) tells me that there's no way Bigelow / Boal screwed it up this badly after 2 hours of absolute brilliance. It had to be some pea brain studio hack who told them that the audience wouldn't get it, and they needed an explanation. But what a deflation!

The right end point for the movie has already passed. If they'd rolled credits right after the climax, with the two soldiers silent and defeated in the Hummer, audiences would have walked out of theaters feeling like they'd been hit by a baseball bat. But now that everything is so screwed up by the Oprah scene, they can't end it there, either.

Instead, we get Sgt. James back in the States with an obvious case of post traumatic stress disorder, shopping for groceries with the mother of his kid. After a few pointless (and oh so obvious) reaction takes, he re-enlists and the tour of duty countdown that has been a running theme from the first frame resets: Bravo Company (or whatever), 365 days to end of tour.

I wanted to shoot my TV. This was the best war movie ever. And then it wasn't. Thanks to some joker who doesn't know the difference between his screenplay and his Powerpoint presentation, it's now officially The Best War Movie Never Made.

I'd love to see the director's cut.

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