The Hurt Locker (2009) -vs- In The Loop (2009)

The Hurt Locer -vs- In the Loop

Sherry CobenThe Smackdown

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 Scorecard

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.

The Decision

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.


About Sherry Coben

A comedy writer who created the 1980s hit show Kate & Allie, Sherry Coben — tired of malingering in development hell — has enjoyed coaching a high school ComedySportz team in SoCal, making a no-budget, high-ambition webisode series, and biting the hand that feeds her.
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9 Responses to The Hurt Locker (2009) -vs- In The Loop (2009)

  1. Jay Amicarella says:

    I can’t believe, after all the hype, and the relentless trashing of it’s ‘rival,’ “Avatar,” that “The Hurt Locker” turned out to be another “Lethal Weapon” movie, with the crazy white guy who seems to have a death wish, and his sober, frightened black partner. Well made? Definitely. Engrossing? You bet. Best Picture? I dunno…

  2. Sherry Coben says:

    I am sorry you disagree with something I wrote but I appreciate your referring to me as a lady. Had you used appropriate language, I could return the favor and call you a gentleman.


  3. Masterpiece? Maybe, yeah, I think it might be. I was completely taken into this world. As for character development, it’s not the traditional kind, I’ll grant you, but it’s still there. Each scene with the bomb squad in the field is unpredictable, riveting, and maxed out. It’s definitely going to get an Oscar nomination. It could win.

  4. Sherry Coben says:

    One of the most interesting things about the film happens to be the hard-to-grasp idea that some people actually thrive on the chaos and danger and insanity and risk of war, a real warrior class…perhaps they’re sociopaths or psychopaths, but we’ve managed to build a world where they’re necessary. Every war film I see only deepens my resolve that war is absolute madness, whether the film is Ken Burns’ “Civil War” or “Glory” or “Paths of Glory” or “Apocalypse Now” or “Band of Brothers” or whatever. I am by nature a pacifist, yet I find myself moved by the genre.

  5. Sebastian says:

    War movies are not a favorite genre for me. I try to avoid them whenever I can, but The Hurt Locker sounds like a winner. I was waiting to hear your opinion (which I value) before plunking down money to be horrified. The past few years of war/terror/fear mongering here in the states needs to end. Maybe more of this kind of film will make the public wake up and demand an end to the madness we call war. Has it ever settled anything? I think not.
    Thanks for your excellent reviews.

  6. Randal Neal Cohen says:

    Well written review (as always) but I have to disagree about “The Hurt Locker”. I think it is the most over hyped movie of the year. No story, no character development (typical Bigelow) and overuse of that trendy handheld camera technique that all directors are now using to give us that ‘reality tv’ feel. A masterpiece? I don’t think so.

  7. Brian says:

    Great reviews. I couldn’t agree more. Two powerful movies.


  8. Agree. Thought it was the one country that could accept democracy and stop invading its neighbors–kuwat and Iran. Maybe they do need a dictatorship or a benovalent dictator though abosolute power corrupts absolutely. Saddam played his game of WMD too well and we listened too poorly to those with a political agenda we too easily believed. What a waste. Rather see the money for a school voucher program.


  9. Excellent Smackdown!

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