Friday, July 24, 2009

Fused (The Hurt Locker and Waltz with Bashir)

(Warning: Spoilers.)

It's hard to make a good war movie, I think, because of certain limitations inherent in the form. War movies feature colorful ensembles of archetypes, each with a more-or-less memorable shtick. War movies are male-dominated, with women usually passive bystanders or wringing their hands dutifully at home (if they're in the film at all). War movies follow a fairly predictable narrative, where the only guesswork is in who lives and who dies. That I've been indifferent to some of the most admired war movies of the last twenty years (the heavy-handed Platoon, the De Palmafied Casualties of War, the cliche factory of Saving Private Ryan) suggests that I'm not only not cut out for war but ill-suited for the genre as well. Yet two recent examples, The Hurt Locker (new in theaters) and Waltz with Bashir (now on DVD), are to me good if imperfect war movies with radically different approaches to the subject matter.

Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker arrives with so much advanced praise it seems impossible for the film to live up to it. (Even Armond White gave it a no-frills positive review.) Although the Iraq War is a topic that has sunk a spate of recent efforts, Mark Boal's screenplay for this one is very specific, focusing on several weeks with an American bomb squad charged with defusing deadly explosives in and around Baghdad. There are really only three main characters: Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). One of the best things about the movie is how James, Sanborn and Eldridge all start as archetypes -- respectively, the hot dog, the black guy, and the coward -- only to evolve into fleshed-out human beings. At first it looks like The Hurt Locker is going to reinforce the notion that recklessness helps a soldier survive while caution gets you killed, until the movie gradually lets the air out of James's bravado, showing him capable of errors of judgment that put himself and his team at risk.

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman's Oscar-nominated animated Israeli documentary about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon (now there're some words I'd never imagined strung together), is as elusive as Bigelow's movie is precise. Folman's real subject is memory: unable to recall his role as a teenage soldier in the invasion, the director interviews former comrades about what actually happened. What ends up happening are penetrating insights into the unreliability of memory, with starkly beautiful animated sequences creating a perpetually shifting dreamscape. Folman fulfills his quest, yet the digressions into his subjects' own mental states (one recounts a harrowing escape down river from enemy forces; another confesses to killing dogs while on patrol, a kind of punishment for being unable to kill another human being) are the most fascinating passages in the film.

The Hurt Locker has been heralded as Bigelow's comeback, though it's debatable if she ever arrived in the first place. Her most prolific period, the 1990s, was noteworthy for pictures like Point Break, mindbogglingly idiotic movies somewhat salvaged by two or three kinetic action sequences. Returning after a hiatus of several years, Bigelow has honed her craft tremendously in The Hurt Locker, showing resourceful ingenuity in staging variations of the same scene of boy-meets-bomb. An expertly drawn-out set-piece in the Iraqi desert is a small masterpiece of suspense; whereas Waltz with Bashir's high-point (which serves as the title for the film) comes when an Israeli soldier fires a machine gun while swirling around a Beirut street-corner, emptying rounds into a poster of the then Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel.
There are other shared qualities, namely a palpable eroticism that courses through each picture. A soldier in Folman's movie hallucinates an escape at sea while clinging to a naked woman; a pair of grunts in Bigelow's intimately spar in a scene of drunken fisticuffs. (It's a pet theme of hers, best exemplified in Point Break until now, and without the distraction of Keanu Reeves struggling to remember his lines.) So why, you may ask, do I sound vaguely unsatisfied? Perhaps because both films play to their flaws as much as their strengths. The docudrama style of The Hurt Locker underscores what seem like implausibilities, such as: Why would an insurgent wait to detonate a bomb until a soldier is running away from it, rather than toward? Is a bomb squad really as autonomous to do what they please as the trio here? In the case of Waltz with Bashir, the main narrative becomes ultimately irrelevant and anticlimactic. I see why Folman switches from animation to actual footage at the film's climax, but that doesn't make the moment any less bludgeoning or ineptly transitioned. Both films are worth seeing: The Hurt Locker for its bravura filmmaking and performances (especially Renner's sterling work in the lead), Waltz with Bashir for its provocative ideas. That neither movie is quite great shouldn't be a sticking point; yet somehow it is.


Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: I'd saved this until my review of The Hurt Locker was in the can. It's a great read. I like your analysis of the eroticism -- and the Point Break reference -- as well as you excellent points about the limitations of the war genre. Good stuff.

As for the bomb unit doing what they please, I didn't sense that. The episode with the sniper happens when they appear to be roaming, yes, but I just assumed they were coming back from an assignment. The other episodes seem like they are responding to a call, with exception to the moment when James leaves them out of the blast zone to go play Rambo.

The Hurt Locker is great in so many ways, but it is a limited pleasure.

Craig said...

Sorry I'm late responding (long week). I agree that they're on assignments; what's missing for me is a sense of that chain of command, which I suspect may not be there so that we'll buy James going commando. (Nice try.) I enjoyed David Morse's cameo, he being so good at that asshole-authority thing, and would have liked more of that than the actor playing Dexter's brother trying to show empathy.

Anyway, we seem pretty much in agreement on this. Good movie, but missing a vital piece.

Craig said...

Speaking of "Point Break," your zinger on Twitter is the funniest thing I've read all week. I consider PB (though released in '91) as the last movie of the 80s, every bit as homoerotic as "Top Gun" but at least with Bigelow you know it's intentional.

Some recently learned "Point Break" trivia: John C. McGinley confessed to be drunk during most of his scenes, and God knows what Gary Busey was on. Meanwhile Keanu, anti-drug and sober as a judge, always looks on the verge of tilting his head off-camera and saying, "Line!"

Oh, and not to be too hard on Patrick Swayze with his serious health problems, but Tom DiCillo, director of the great comedy "Living in Oblivion," admitted that James LeGros's performance was based on Swayze's offscreen antics in PB (LeGros had a supporting role) and not, as often assumed, Brad Pitt.

What were we talking about? Oh, yes: "The Hurt Locker"....

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: Thanks. I'd say Point Break is more homoerotic than Top Gun. And that's saying something.

I presume you've seen this. Priceless.

That's some interesting trivia. In the few minutes I watched of PB yesterday it struck me that Reeves (your description cracked me up) manages to make Swayze look like Marlon Brando.