Kathryn Bigelow directed The Hurt Locker which was written by former Iraq-War-embedded freelance reporter Mark Boal. They are back with Zero Dark Thirty, a magnificent, twisting-and-turning sleuthing caper widely misinterpreted as an ideological drama at best casual about US torture of Arab militants and as well attacked as one that falsely conveys that such torture led to key clues in the finding of Bin Laden.
In neither of these films sure to become classics of our time and among the Hollywood films that count is there much, if any, distraction from Bigelow’s purity of focus on the psychology of war and, in Zero Dark Thirty, of that psychology as told in the story of a female intelligence analyst, Maya, assigned to field duty in the Middle East and, virtually a rookie analyst, consumed by a lonely and successful step-by-step discovery of Bin Laden’s courier, that courier a practitioner of excellent tradecraft and long eluding US confirmation but finally discovered and followed until he leads his followers to the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan. Of her actor colleagues in the movies, Maya most reminds of Erin Brokovich.
Jessica Chastain is superb as Maya.
Unhappily, I have to believe that the movie version of torture mimics torture that did take place in roughly the early-to-mid 2000s. It is shown in the movie as being done both in Afghanistan by CIA operatives and, in what has been called “rendition,” by the ISI in Pakistan. And I find it improbable that important clues about the courier were not so obtained. Torture should never occur, but in those times, in that administration, I have to believe that we practiced it.
Bigelow and Boal, I think, intend to create what they are convinced is a realistic movie, and their work here and in The Hurt Locker leads you to believe that they are convinced both that the torture occurred and that it yielded some salient if not conclusive information. In making this movie they do not, I think, really care about the controversy of this depiction; Boal believes certain sources gave him the truth here and the tenor of Zero Dark Thirty is: It happened; here it is; we’re not bothering to argue about it; deal with it; we are not within the story itself calling it either justified or not.
Maya is repulsed by the torture but by the torture in the act, not for the few insights it gives her in her pursuit. Bigelow and Boal portray the principal torturer with little sympathy. Ironically he turns out to be a rather typical risk-averse bureaucrat.
As the movie opens, a 911 call on 9/11 is heard, the desperate voice of a woman trapped above the fire in one of the towers. And in the chase, Maya eventually exudes retribution, especially after her best friend, a female field analyst in Maya’s unit, is killed in the Camp Chapman suicide bomber attack in 2008 which killed several CIA operatives.
The enemy in Zero Dark Thirty includes middle-level managers in the Intelligence Community–they are like the Station Chief to whom Maya ultimately reports–who seem wary of the findings of Maya and who are portrayed as unwilling to take many chances. At a key meeting in the CIA Director’s office, they use percentages about the presence of Bin Laden: “I’d give it a 60% chance,” etc. James Gondolfini stands in for a CIA Director who simply cannot be anyone other than my university classmate Leon Panetta, and it is Panetta who believes Maya. In a fine scene, he shows up in the employee dining room at CIA headquarters, joins Maya who is eating alone, asks her to rate the food (“I haven’t been down here before”), and looks her in the eye, as they say. He trusts her in her certainty about Bin Laden’s whereabouts. The rest is history.
But the news here is that Bigelow is a superb director and Boal a fine screenwriter. Zero Dark Thirty seems at the center of these roiling times with the confluence of technology and cultural strife. Bigelow in The Hurt Locker and in Zero Dark Thirty is out in the world and giving us gritty, up-to-date adventures that, finally, seem the latest instantiations of the classic swashbuckling movies of decades ago. She’s in the tradition. It’s a tradition that works in the movies.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
If economists have been embarrassed by the 2008 Recession, the US media and Hollywood should be embarrassed by The Hurt Locker. After years of “coverage” of the Iraq War–embedded reporters, forests of copy, near daily programming from and/or about Iraq on network and cable news shows, and universally failed, preachy and undramatic movies for and against the war starring Big Names–neophyte screenwriter Mark Boal and veteran director Kathryn Bigelow and young uncelebrated actor Jeremy Renner have created a movie that finally gives a dramatic sense of the true experience of our soldiers over there: daily, harrowing, courageous, skilled, protean-weaponized life on the ground and the combative, edgy, even hostile rituals of “stress-reduction” by the young soldiers in the barracks post patrols by their scotch-swigging pummeling of each other to the point of serious fighting; and all the while dramatizing the overarching warping of their “civilian psychology” for reentry to life in the states; or, as this sad drama is sometimes called, experiencing antecedents of “post traumatic shock syndrome.” It is a remarkably honest and powerful movie.
Boal was a freelance (not institutional) writer embedded with a US Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal team, and his immediate and no-nonsense screenplay dramatizes a few days near the end of the yearlong tour of duty of one imaginary EOD team as they defuse IEDs. For them, as for many other forces in harm’s way from the beginning of history, each day in action in the countdown to tour’s end is a very, very long and precarious time. Bigelow has superbly created a sense of realism we might name by borrowing a title from one of Thelonious Monk’s wonderful compositions: “Straight, No Chaser.” Although The Hurt Locker is a fictionalized story, and not a small one and certainly not limited to Iraq in cultural significance but is about America itself in these times, it often has the feel of a combat documentary with here and there traces of Cinema Verite; Bigelow makes you believe that you are seeing some (not all) of the real thing, and I feel certain we must be.
Not surprisingly, then, on the immediate surface of The Hurt Locker there is not a single very noticeable Hollywood tic. They are there, of course, but unobtrusively and hence powerfully. If you recall the classic 1953 French movie, The Wages of Fear, about tense, frightened truck drivers driving highly volatile nitroglycerin over rutted and rocky mountain roads, you will understand the relentless dramatic tension in the bomb-defusing scenes in The Hurt Locker. The central and archetypal character, Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner), has already disarmed 873 IEDs and obviously each one has put him on the ultimate edge, a matter of life and death; James is an intrepid genius, a heroic great (word chosen carefully) sleuth about bomb-making by deadly enemy experts, James having honed an avaricious cognition about figuring out clever triggers and deceptive wiring by the inimical improvisers, hiders, baiters and entrapping lurers who make the deadly explosive devices, this testing James to the enth degree as he battles determined and skilled and subtle insurgents; and the several more IEDs beyond his Aaronian 873 we see him disarm, a set of IEDs chosen to show the escalating variety, ingenuity and savagery of their makers in 2004, bring a tension seldom felt in watching movies.
It certainly helps the verisimilitude that Bigelow, shooting most of the film in Jordan very near the border with Iraq, creates entirely convincing sets: eerie, empty, portentous, trash-strewn, mined streets of towns and cities; desert ambushes in sweltering, glaring wastes in which the fighting is long-distance by means of today’s high-tech sniper technology; impoverished neighborhoods; IED-making factories in the rubble of partially destroyed warehouses; and much more. The enemy is ubiquitous and often hard to identify among groups of Iraqis. There’s almost no direct combat. Great hostility from many, not all, Iraqis is, however, palpable. Bigelow stages two scenes, one an inspired one with a smolderingly angry Iraqi cabdriver, which dramatize the enmity toward the Occupiers unforgettably. Besides The Wages of Fear, I’m reminded a little of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day Life of Ivan Denisovich in which he dramatizes the Gulag far more powerfully than in the more tutorial Gulag Archipelago: Ivan is close to the style of The Hurt Locker.
I don’t want to be a spoiler, so I’ll end with three points about scope.
Bigelow cannot possibly give a full sense of our people in Iraq. Films have budgets. They have to be “small” to be affordable. So in war films, almost always you must generalize from the squad or the platoon. Oliver Stone’s Platoon about the Viet Nam war suffered from this unavoidable limitation. So does The Hurt Locker about Iraq. But such films seem much more to convey realism than most other media. There are no commercial breaks. Consultants aren’t inserting celeb and medical schlock. Sponsors aren’t objecting to “unpleasantness.” Chatterers inside the Beltway and on cable and networks aren’t blathering on and on about the “big issues.”
Sergeant First Class James is a familiar soldier. He is a warrior. He goes back to Homer. Achilles would have included him in his force without hesitation. Simply, James must be in the thick of the challenge. After 873-plus defusings of the the best explosive devices the enemy can challenge him with, his identity and cognitive happiness depend on his being a bomb defuser, one whose expertise is so heroically great that he is allowed to disarm bombs his way, not necessarily according to the manual. As he tells an admiring Col. Reed (David Morse), a brother in being himself a “re-upped” professional soldier, and who orders James to tell him how best to disarm bombs, “Sir, don’t get killed doing it.” Reed loves it.
After the tour, James returns home to divorced wife and toddler son. They still live together under one roof. It’s no good for James. Consumer society and family and home life kills his soul. In a grocery store aisle, as he disgustedly sees the explosion in cereals now available on seemingly endlessly stretching shelves (an explosion in products in nearly every store of any kind these days), he frustratedly picks one box at random. He doesn’t care. At home, helping his divorced wife slice carrots and mushrooms (warning: heavy story symbols falling from the sky, take cover), he can’t muster the interest. His spirit, sharpened invincibly to be out there on the edge taking up the life-and-death challenge, calls him back to a second tour, whereupon we leave him happily walking up a sinister street in Iraq ready to tackle another bomb. The End.
Well, not quite. I’m going to guess with some confidence that The Hurt Locker, and especially Sergeant William James, is also about the classic disillusionment of these days besetting those of us here in the states who have not been to the Iraq war. With nuclear proliferation, the Great Recession, health care, loss of jobs and the rest of the huge issues–the Bush years in which we got taken to the cleaners–the disillusionment is in part a matter of not being able to trust governmental and corporate processes we used to trust; we’ve been had, ripped off when we didn’t think we were being that exploited. Now there’s a growing feeling that out of self-defense you have to learn things you weren’t trying to learn a while back. You have to master at least some of the facts. It’s a world of relentless, omnipresent hypesters. You have to use your imagination, and as much learning as you can obtain, to get yourself not merely self-defensive but knowledgeable enough to defuse those bombs, those improvised explosive devices. Yes, certainly this is a larger metaphor by Bigelow…that all manner of people are trying to blow you up. Before you know it, they’ll put an IED in a tricky mortgage (an “ARM,” which ironically is apt nominally) or try to sell you on the idea that a fairer health system will somehow bring “socialism” when perhaps it’s the salvation for a niece trying to get coverage in a small business and the Devil whispering conspiracy in your ear has deployed hundreds of lobbyists who have everything but your interest (let alone your niece’s) in mind. And, well, you could go on and on here. So maybe Sergeant William James is onto something. Maybe, oddly, in a larger way his desire to return to combat and out-sleuth the bombers is classic to this period of disillusionment. Surely, there’s something really appealing about Sgt. James. I found myself liking him a lot. His attitude is appropriate for our time, is it not? You don’t have to leave your family, your life, to be out on the edge, defusing the bombs and taking on our insurgents.
It feels good going after those bombs. I think I get Bigelow’s movie.