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Friday, March 5, 2010
After months of avoiding any kind of political slant toward the war in Iraq whatsoever in discussing her film The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow told 60 Minutes' Lesley Stahl last week that her film is anti-war. Days before the CBS telecast, Bigelow confirmed to The Envelope's Steve Pond that The Hurt Locker is "definitely taking a very specific position" on the Iraq war, and war in general:

Pond: I keep reading about how the movie doesn’t take a political point of view, but it seems clear to me that you have a pretty strong point of view. As you say, it's a hellish situation and we have no business sending our men into it.
Bigelow: Well, that’s certainly my feeling. I’m a child of the ‘60s, and I see war as hell, and a real tragedy, and completely dehumanizing. You know, those are some of the great themes of our time, and we made a real effort to portray the brutality and the futility of this conflict.

Pond: So you would say that the movie does indeed take a stance?
Bigelow: I guess my feeling is that graphic portrayals of innocent children killed by bombs, and soldiers incapable of surviving catastrophic explosions … I think that’s pretty clear. And then also, to add to that, the movie opens with a quote, “The rush to battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” So it’s definitely taking a very specific position.

Bigelow's description of The Hurt Locker marks a decided contrast from earlier interviews, where she seemed to want to distance her film from works like Brian De Palma's Redacted and Paul Haggis' In The Valley Of Elah (adapted from an article by Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal)-- works that took undeniable stands against the war in Iraq, but were met with indifference at the box office and in the press. Bigelow's confession comes after much acclaim for her film, so perhaps now she feels more confident that being clear about the movie's point of view will not hurt the film's chances for success (especially since it has already played theaters and is already available on DVD). But articles such as FOX News' James Pinkerton's, in which he states that the reason for the Hurt Locker's success over most other Iraq-related films is its "quietly pro-war" stance, are suddenly more complicated. The film will surely continue to be looked at as mostly apolitical, but Bigelow's clear statements may lead viewers to rethink what her movie is trying to say.

John Pilger's rant against the Oscars ("Why the Oscars are a Con"), in which he called out filmmakers for being "pimps for a world view devoted to control and destruction," made the rounds a couple of weeks ago. Pilger derides The Hurt Locker as another in a tradition of American war films that glorify psychopaths as heroes:

I only fully understood the power of the con when I was sent to Vietnam as a war reporter. The Vietnamese were “gooks” and “Indians” whose industrial murder was preordained in John Wayne movies and sent back to Hollywood to glamourise or redeem.

I use the word murder advisedly, because what Hollywood does brilliantly is suppress the truth about America’s assaults. These are not wars, but the export of a gun-addicted, homicidal “culture”. And when the notion of psychopaths as heroes wears thin, the bloodbath becomes an “American tragedy” with a soundtrack of pure angst.

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is in this tradition. A favourite for multiple Oscars, her film is “better than any documentary I’ve seen on the Iraq war. It’s so real it’s scary” (Paul Chambers CNN). Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian reckons it has “unpretentious clarity” and is “about the long and painful endgame in Iraq” that “says more about the agony and wrong and tragedy of war than all those earnest well-meaning movies”.

What nonsense. Her film offers a vicarious thrill via yet another standard-issue psychopath high on violence in somebody else’s country where the deaths of a million people are consigned to cinematic oblivion. The hype around Bigelow is that she may be the first female director to win an Oscar. How insulting that a woman is celebrated for a typically violent all-male war movie.

Before ranting similar disdain for James Cameron's Avatar, Pilger stops to contrast the fate of De Palma's "admirable" Redacted:

By contrast, the fate of an admirable American war film, Redacted, is instructive. Made in 2007 by Brian De Palma, the film is based on the true story of the gang rape of an Iraqi teenager and the murder of her family by American soldiers. There is no heroism, no purgative. The murderers are murderers, and the complicity of Hollywood and the media in the epic crime in Iraq is described ingeniously by De Palma. The film ends with a series of photographs of Iraqi civilians who were killed. When it was order that their faces be ordered blacked out “for legal reasons”, De Palma said, “I think that’s terrible because now we have not even given the dignity of faces to this suffering people. The great irony about Redacted is that it was redacted.” After a limited release in the US, this fine film all but vanished.

Meanwhile, Armond White at the New York Press has made a splash by shouting, "Wake Up and Smell the Oscars: They Stink! (Or why Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t need to win a statue because she’s better than that.)" White rants against the hegemony of Oscar prognostication in the media and film circles at the expense of any discussion of the art involved. White, who had originally written highly of The Hurt Locker, later began to state time and again in his reviews of other films that The Hurt Locker was "now overrated" by others. Recently, he mentioned Bigelow's film in two separate reviews of films released around Valentine's Day. In his review of Lasse Hallstrom's Dear John, White wrote:

Dear John could be The Hurt Locker of romantic movies when Green Beret Staff Sergeant John Tyree (Channing Tatum) loses his stateside girlfriend Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) while serving his country in Iraq. The film has little feeling for military experience, or the sense of patriotic duty that John enunciates during the opening narration: “I am a coin in the United States Army. My edges have been rimmed and beveled. I have two [bullet] holes in me, so I’m no longer in perfect condition."

John’s reference to coins and wounds makes a trenchant metaphor for his humble sense of sacrifice and exploitation. As one young man among millions, he takes a thankless military commission that many civilians presume is ordinary. John represents the type of heroism to which most people pay lip service but little real attention—unless it is politically convenient, like The Hurt Locker passing off action-genre tropes (and fashionable pessimism) as a true response to war. It’s worth appreciating that Dear John is just a different form of similar sentimentality. As in The Hurt Locker, the audience’s war fatigue is what’s exploited.

The civilian scenes where John and Savannah meet, fall in love and attempt to negotiate their future together don’t reference the current political moment except that the war seems far away—unconnected to people’s daily preoccupations. Sappy director Lasse Hallstrom only glancingly identifies John as the type of working-class Southern white boy who joins-up. John’s motivation—isolated from his disabled, uncommunicative father—(Richard Jenkins) isn’t any more serious than Jeremy Renner’s bogus pathology in The Hurt Locker. It’s a sentimental cliché.

A few days later, in his review of Garry Marshall's Valentine's Day, White called Julia Roberts' cameo, in which she "impersonates an Iraq war vet," a "mushy subplot" that was more significant than The Hurt Locker in that it "normalizes the war as a now acceptable—even heartwarming—part of contemporary American experience."

Posted by Geoff at 2:41 PM CST
Updated: Sunday, March 7, 2010 8:08 PM CST
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