Reflecting back on the just-watched Hurt Locker, I'm still reeling from the experience. It's tense, claustrophobic, well-crafted and terrific... pretty much as Nick described it in his year-end post. The only thing I'd like to suggest is a slightly different reading on the “politics” of the film. I think it's possible that we've come to expect overt messages from filmmakers and are less attuned to subtle ones. The film that most immediately comes to mind in comparative terms is Coppola's Apocalypse Now, another movie that doesn't wear its politics on its sleeve, but could hardly be called apolitical. I think Bigelow's Hurt Locker falls into similar territory and, like the Coppola film before it, we will see its politics come into focus the further we get from it. I think it's entirely possible that this film might be a defining statement about the United States and it's people in the aftermath of 9/11.
While I think an alternate reading of the film paints a fascinating metaphor of the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, I'd also like to suggest that this metaphor isn't “political” - at least in any modern “geopolitical” sense - but rather tied (and self-consciously so) to another great American myth, the cowboy. On more than one occasion during The Hurt Locker, Sargent James/Jesse James walks off alone to face down the bad guys evoking some pretty heavy “High Noon” symbolism. His bravado and borderline psychotic behavior parallels western gunslinger lore only too closely as Bigelow shows James as myopic to the point of insanity.
I've got a few minor quibbles about Hurt Locker that I hope aren't misinterpreted as nit-picky. Picking up on a point made about Avatar in an earlier post, I think The Hurt Locker suffers a little in the writing department at times. It's simplistic where it doesn't need to be. The Jack-In-The-Box scene is just too obvious for such an otherwise smart movie. The subplot with the little black market DVD kid seems out of place and muddies the film's pacing unnecessarily. The other members of the bomb disposal team don't bring much to the table and at times Bigelow seems simply too enamored with her lead. If there is a fundamental weakness in the film, it is perhaps in its inability to do what good cowboy films have achieved, to touch on the dark choice at the heart of this character – the question of whether what he does is something a man has to do, or something he chooses to do. Bigelow seems uninterested in following this “heart of darkness” thread to its natural conclusion.
Technically, The Hurt Locker is an accomplished work and it seems to have succeeded in finding an audience where a range of other films about the the modern American military (Rendition, Lions For Lambs, In The Valley Of Elah, Stop-Loss, Redacted… all high-profile quasi-war movies, all box office flops) have failed to. Thematically, it's a solid effort at deconstructing the heroic mystique that draws men to war and countries into conflict. From this perspective, I think that The Hurt Locker could be seen as a highly political film, just not in the way we're use to seeing. Watching it had me thinking that I need to revisit David Simon's Generation Kill and give it a second shot. From the couple of episodes I watched, there are some interesting parallels to The Hurt Locker is terms of visual style and presentation.