Let’s face it. The war in Iraq is unpopular, unwinnable, unjustifiable, and virtually invisible. Summer scorches, and movie theaters fill with mostly brainless fare aimed at hordes of mindless staycationers. In this unlikely and hostile environment, two brilliantly made and passionate films struggle valiantly to attract a largely disinterested audience, generating not much box-office heat while throwing considerably intense light at a subject we’d apparently much rather ignore. The British entry in the race, In The Loop, brutally satirizes the wonky run-up to an unnecessary war, and Hurt Locker lands us solidly in the inescapably surreal reality of an elite bomb squad team, right in the epicenter of hell. These films dance on the edge of the abyss; war is hell, and we owe it to ourselves not to look away.
In This Corner
Kathryn Bigelow brings a script by Mark Boal to gripping hold-your-breath-till-it’s-over life. In The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner plays the reckless renegade leader of a Baghdad’s Bravo Company bomb squad disposal team. There may be nothing new in the oft-visited premise that war is chaos, but Bigelow plunges you headlong into a world of crazy, beyond your wildest nightmares of war, and rarely lets go. The explosive action sequences sustain an unmatched cinematic tension; death comes swiftly, randomly, and often in this hellhole of unexplained and inexplicable horror. It’s hard to watch and impossible to turn away.
In That Corner
Director Armando Iannucci investigates the unfortunate buildup to an unnecessary war; it’s impossible not to see the obvious parallels to Iraq. Poison-penned and dialogue-driven, In The Loop is laugh-out-loud cringefest office comedy; the offices under satiric fire just happen to be the halls of government, and the stakes are unimaginably high. The Brits wrestle with increasing irrelevancy on the national stage, nipping at the heels of their wily American cousins across the pond, and begging for a place at the big table. Every member of the huge cast soars, spewing venom and delicious bon mots in this deliciously depraved Dr. Strangelove for the New Millennium.
The Hurt Locker comes damn close to earning masterpiece status. Only in the scenes between the action does the film occasionally falter; in individuating the bomb squad crew, a few character choices and set pieces have the whiff of the war-movie generic about them, and we find ourselves itching to get back to the field, to escape the hackneyed struggles and occasionally overcooked drama of the base. Nothing matches the filmmaking of the utterly believable and wrenching missions, and we start to experience a little bit of the high, the tiniest sense of the drug of war.
Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, and David Morse hit hard in their well-wrought cameos. To criticize the weak parts would be nitpicking; perhaps the audience needs the break from all the breathholding, armrest-clutching tension. The craziness of the entire enterprise holds and fills the screen; insurgents and innocents watch impassively, impossibly calm, as their world is blown to smithereens. Images sear with the power of truth and horrible beauty – a scraggly cat limping among the ruins of a war-torn street, a little boy made into a bomb lying on a table, a nighttime cityscape scarier than anything you can conjure on your own. The heat, the firefights, the madness. The Hurt Locker works like a fever dream, installing unforgettable memories directly into your brain. A work of tremendous power and focus, the film demands much of the viewer and rewards the effort tenfold.
On the lighter side of the very dark side, paperpushers, professional puppetheads, spin doctors, and politicos make a huge hash of the world, perpetrating the ill-planned, misbegotten mess of an unnecessary ground war. The finger of blame points in every possible direction, and it’s funny because it’s true. And it hurts.
Tom Hollander plays mild-mannered Simon Foster, British Secretary of State for International Development, another cultured pearl in Hollander’s long string of utterly convincing performances as the go-to pedant with the short-man complex and the oversized ambition. Think Pirates of the Caribbean. Foster’s penchant for confused misstatements accelerates the march to inevitable war, further insured by the bumblings of his ambitious and massively incompetent new aide. Peter Capaldi plays a Machiavellian communications chief in a deft star turn, his role reprised from the scathing BBC series The Thick of It.
In The Loop plays a little like the British, foul-mouthed, nasty, self-loathing version of Aaron Sorkin’s far more idealistic but equally verbose West Wing. James Gandolfini steps into the conflicted shoes of a seemingly sane Colin Powell style general, the only general in the Pentagon who has a clue until personal ambition muddies his waters. David Rasche, Mimi Kennedy, Anna Chlumsky, Steve Coogan, Gina McKee, Chris Addison, and many others deliver pitch-perfect performances, skewering the powers that be and all the satellites and sycophants that surround them. What an amazing mess they manage to make and in so little time.
Both films are well worth your time and attention. What a rich genre for thoughtful, gripping entertainments. Life and death, black comedy, surrealism, political intrigue, and the ensuing unrelated chaos — a huge canvas; war provides artists fantastic, perhaps unrivaled, subject matter that simply does not need hype to deliver a big bang. The Hurt Locker isn’t a perfect film, but its action sequences are among the best ever in the history of movies. It’s a riveting ride into a reality I rarely consider. It’s nearly impossible to believe that a world away, our nation’s sons and daughters spend their days in this kind of danger and utter insanity and harder still to accept that many of them make the choice to do so. God bless them all, every one.
In The Loop tickled and enraged, a combo platter of political smarts, righteous rage, and hysteria. I loved every frustrating minute I spent with these wonderfully horrible movers and shakers. The bottom line: If you’re an action movie junkie, step away from the CGI summer fantasy explosions for some real life horror and check out The Hurt Locker. If you’re more the squeamish Anglophile type, you’ll get a huge kick out of In The Loop. Whoever you are, both films belong on your must-see list.
Here’s the thing about war: Everybody loses…except moviemakers and movie audiences.