What is it about war that makes a splendid frame on a big screen?

War is the most brutal form of human expression ever possible. It is the most belligerent form of world politics plotted. It is, in the least, the most debilitating experience for not just one generation but many to come.

Then, what is it about war that makes a splendid frame on a big screen? For most parts, it is the cinematic engineering- music that feeds the need of drama and accentuates it, cinematography that makes a visual tactile, editing that blurs the distance between the audience and the ‘action scene,’ production values that recreate the time in a different space, actors that put a face to the people that are referred to in third person in news stories, and a director who pours this vision in celluloid. And, for the obvious reason of war being a synonym for power and thus sharing it’s seductive appeal.

Hurt Locker packs in healthy amounts of all these. But, for me, it is Kathryn Bigelow’s astute sense of action that comes through strongly. It is an action film all through. Which brings me to my unlikely attraction to a film of this genre. (Yes, I’m one of those few weirdos who don’t see the visual appeal of the bomb exploding behind a running man, cars jumping sky-high and similar adrenaline and testosterone pumping acts. And this has got nothing to do with my gender.) You do not feel that the explosions are mere special effects to draw in audiences, there’s no high-end gadgetry on display for the oomph factor and it’s not just a ‘boom’ in the dolby sound that shakes you but the reality of the act.

The film follows a team of bomb technicians in the capricious landscape of post-war Iraq as they go about dismantling IEDs and take death as an imminent promise. They are young, stressed-out, and almost mechanical. Almost, as James, Jeremy Renner in a deft portrayal of a soldier threading the thin line between bravado and bravery, pushes the envelope when it comes to the frigid command codes in military as a habit and takes a liking to a local boy selling porn DVDs at military bases. Contrasting this is Sanborn, Anthony Mackie, a protocol adherent who just wants to get it over and done with. Between these two is Eldridge, Brian Geraghty; scared, traumatized, and confused. James comes into the team after the previous technician is killed in a bomb accident. The film opens with this accident as the team tries to dismantle an IED, establishing the running-time leitmotif. Narratively speaking, there isn’t much of a sequence or story. Instead, Bigelow adamantly sticks to these three men and their lives at stake everyday, conveniently avoiding the ideology of the ‘big-picture.’ There is just a hint of the people with power when Col. Reed, David Morse, congratulates James’ accomplishments as if he was roughishly complimenting a video gamer on the points accrued. In a way, James is surreal as a bomb technician, deriving pleasure from his actions and having keepsakes of “things that could have killed me… there is a whole box of them.” It stays with these soldiers who are working the war and does not move up the hierarchy of power. These men who have been rendered callous in the face of the such excesses.

So, how can a war film or a film that uses war as its canvas be apolitical? War is only waged between political communities. And, even if the film is not making a statement on war in its entirety, it’s still a microcosm of the same. Even though Hurt Locker does not seem to work according to the memes of war films; as in have an agenda of depicting war brutalities, dwell on male bonding,  comment on societal effects, profound exploration of morals, anti-war dissidence or score partisan points; it is not to say that the film is apolitical. Also, the fact that it is rooted on entertainment value does not implicate it with jingoism. The film’s stubbornness in revolving around the three main characters does lend to it’s politics, albeit inadvertently.

Soldier: “Camp ‘Victory?’ I thought it was ‘Camp Liberty.'”

Another soldier: “Ah, no, they changed it about a week ago. Victory sounds better. …”


For the record, my list of films on war (although by no means have I the qualification to select based on any other criterion except personal interest):

Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket

Coppola’s Apocalypse now

Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front