By A.O. Scott (Link)
Last Tuesday, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences bestowed nine nominations on “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow’s nerve-racking, formally astonishing tour de force about a squad of United States Army bomb disposal specialists plying their hazardous trade in Baghdad. After seven years in Iraq, eight in Afghanistan, and dozens of feature films touching — sometimes gingerly, sometimes allegorically — on both conflicts, this recognition seems both timely and overdue. At last, attention is being paid to a tough, uncompromising drama (which is also a doozy of an action movie) about the realities of combat on the ground.
Since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, “The Hurt Locker” has been praised by critics for many things, including, frequently, its apolitical approach to the war. In interview after interview, Ms. Bigelow and the screenwriter, Mark Boal, whose experience as an embedded journalist in Baghdad informs much of the story, have insisted that the movie takes no position on the American mission in Iraq, restricting its focus to the men carrying out that mission.
Whether or not “The Hurt Locker” sustains this neutrality may be arguable, but the film’s intentions to stay out of messy debates about the wisdom or effectiveness of American military policy is perhaps the least distinctive thing about it. When it comes to current military engagements on the Asian landmass, Karl von Clausewitz’s assertion that war is “the continuation of politics by other means” is one memo — and perhaps one of the few clichés — that American filmmakers have largely chosen to ignore.
A few days before the Oscar nominations were announced, a jury at the Sundance Film Festival awarded a grand prize to “Restrepo,” a documentary directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger that follows an Army platoon through a dangerous year in a deadly part of Afghanistan. A directors’ statement on that film’s Web site, after noting that “the war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized,” defends the decision not to engage in political arguments in strong terms. The experiences of the soldiers, the directors write, “are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs are a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.”
I have not seen “Restrepo,” and I am eager to encounter, in the safety of a screening room, the reality it depicts. But the claim that reality trumps any interpretation of it, and the implication that the unmediated, first-hand depiction of combat is the most authentic representation of war, are both debatable and familiar. The first important documentary about American troops in Iraq, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s “Gunner Palace” — filmed in 2003, at the beginning of the insurgency that dominates “The Hurt Locker” — was similarly forceful in favoring immediate experience over ideological debate. And nearly every other feature since, documentary and fictional, has followed suit.
Last year, “Brothers” and “The Messenger,” two well-reviewed dramas about soldiers coming home, turned the experiential gulf between those who have seen combat and those who have stayed home into psychological and domestic drama. But while these movies were candid in showing the traumatic effects of battle on soldiers and their families, they were typically reticent about the meanings and implications of that trauma, and the filmmakers were typically vocal in denying any political agenda.
There have been some exceptions to this rule. Brian de Palma’s “Redacted” and Paul Haggis’s “In the Valley of Elah,” released in fall 2007, questioned the war in Iraq, one in anger and the other in sorrow and both with emphasis on the effects of the fighting on men in the field. Other films from that year, like Robert Redford’s “Lions for Lambs” and Gavin Hood’s “Rendition,” tried to dramatize debates then unfolding in the public sphere about the justice or prudence of American policy. None of these movies were particularly successful, either with audiences or in their earnest, cautious attempts to frame the issues of post-9/11 geopolitics.
It may be that movies, at least as they are currently made and consumed, can’t bridge the gulf between the theater of war and the arena of politics. It is also probably true that the soldiers who are the main characters in fictional and nonfictional war movies don’t talk much about the larger context in which they struggle to survive and get the job done. But in previous wars — in older war movies, that is — they could be a bit more forthcoming. Sailors and infantrymen in World War II combat pictures were known to wax eloquent about the pasting they were going to give Hitler and Tojo, while the grunts in the post-Vietnam Vietnam movies often gave voice to the cynicism and alienation that were part of that war’s actual and cinematic legacy.
But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are different. They are being fought, for one thing, largely out of sight of the American public and largely by an army of professionals. And the respect afforded those professionals — an admiration that is the most pervasive and persuasive aspect of “The Hurt Locker” — extends across the political spectrum. At the same time, though, the political contention about the wars themselves has been vociferous and endless, even as it has involved a measure of ambivalence and, as the wars have gone on, a lot of position-changing and second guessing.
Perhaps the decision to stay out of these debates is a way of acknowledging this ambivalence. Or perhaps filmmakers, aware of the volatility of popular opinion, are leery of turning off potential ticket buyers on one side or another. Or maybe, in the end, the gap between beliefs about war and its reality is too wide for any single movie to capture. Politics finds its way into films like “In the Loop,” Armando Iannucci’s scabrous satire of diplomatic back-stabbing (nominated for an adapted screenplay Oscar), and “No End in Sight,” Charles Ferguson’s meticulous documentary on the disastrous early stages of the Iraqi war. But the disconnection between the policy players in those movies and the guys in “The Hurt Locker” and “Restrepo” seems absolute. That may say more about reality than about the movies.