Perhaps, as a blogger friend once offered up, the poor quality of these films - and, thus, the public's shrugged reaction to them - was all just a matter of poor artistic digestion. Meaning, it's possible that many of our modern-day war films were just prematurely made in the shadows of 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq, in a time where we all were still scrambling to get a foot hold on our own political feelings and beliefs. If the lawmakers in Washington took advantage of our unsettled natures, at the time, to make decisions and pass legislation, then so did our filmmakers push their agendas on us in films, that in hindsight, look a lot like propaganda. But it's my prediction that, since the dust has settled (relatively speaking), we shall begin to see more textured and thoughtful films about the experiences and trickle-down effects on Iraq War veterans and active duty soldiers. Of course, it's easy to make such a statement after seeing Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, not only the best Iraq War film to date, but one of the best war films, period.
Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who was embedded with a U.S. military bomb squad for a period of time) part the seas of loud politics and media noise that compromised so many of those early Iraq War films, and focus their lens & pen square on the soldiers of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq. There is little talk of politics, foreign policy, or current events amongst the soldiers outside of the events that dominate their days of surviving. Bigelow's idea to play The Hurt Locker as a kind of thriller doesn't harm it at all. In fact, it enhances it. It would be disingenuous to try and replicate the experiences of ground combat and then ask the audience to empathize with it. Most of us can't. By narrowing the focus down to a single bomb squad, Bigelow still doesn't make the the tensions, fears, and victories that these three men experience relatable, but they do feel instantly identifiable.
A lot of the early hype surrounding The Hurt Locker singles-out the performance of Jeremy Renner. Well, believe the hype - I suspect the guy will be a shoo-in for Best Actor nominee - but don't discount the character work that both he and screenwriter Mark Boal fleshed-out together. In a way, Renner's Staff Sergeant is every part the typical Kathryn Bigelow cocksure male, but, in addition to that, he owns a kicked-back sensitivity that pushes the character beyond the awesome cartoonish-ness of, say, Bodhi in Point Break or Severin in Near Dark.
Our introduction to Renner's character is big-screen macho poetry. While listening to some heavy metal as Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, also great... the two actors share on screen chemistry that rivals that of Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan from last year's Happy-Go-Lucky) approaches him for reassignment, Renner gets off a line about the trade-off of sunshine coming through the window versus mortar shells penetrating the roof. In many, many other hands, this scene would have flirted with the embarrassingly dramatic, but Bigelow's respectfully backed-off camera capturing Renner's posture and dialogue brings home a 2009 moment-to-remember.
If I have one beef with The Hurt Locker, it's in the quote that Kathryn Bigelow uses to open her film with. I don't recall it word-for-word, but the last part reads something to the effect of, "war is an addiction". It comes from socialist historian/field reporter Chris Hedges, who, in knowing his opinions on war, most likely penned the phrase in dramatically different terms than the sentiment that Bigelow expresses in her film. While Bigelow undoubtedly traces the addictive nature of combat, that adrenaline fix of "rolling the dice on life or death", she also portrays the soldiers as heroic (the tag line on The Hurt Locker's poster is "YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE A HERO TO DO THIS JOB, BUT IT HELPS"). However, Hedges' reflections on war often speak of red-fanged warmongers and hawks getting pumped on carnage and power. That's not the kind of adrenaline Bigelow is tapping here, and the quote feels sorely misplaced.
Otherwise, 2009 is feeling mildly special to me in that it's marked the "return" of both Sam Raimi and Kathryn Bigelow, two old-time favorites who had disappeared - either entirely off the radar, or down the hole of lame film franchise - but now return, perhaps, stronger than ever.