13 January 2010

Double Feature: In the Loop & The Hurt Locker

Released on DVD the same day in the U.S., the British comedy In the Loop and the American war movie The Hurt Locker make a fine pairing.  The first is a political satire about the behind-the-scenes machinations leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq that feels rather like an extended episode of the original version of The Office, while the second is a tense and intensely immersive view of six weeks in the life of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Baghdad in 2004.

Or, to put it all another way, In the Loop is the story of a bunch of repressed homosexuals who start a war rather than deal with their feelings, while The Hurt Locker, as Glenn Kenny pointed out, is a study of addiction.

Most of the characters in In the Loop are mid-level British or American politicians, the sorts of people who can't make very many decisions on their own, but like to think they can.  Though there are differences between the Brits and the Yanks, they do share one hang-up in common:  hardly a scene passes without the characters questioning each other's masculinity, using homophobia for a quick insult, or otherwise reinforcing a toxically heterosexist environment.  At the same time, all of the men in the film are schmucks, and at least a couple of them are psychopaths.  There are only a few women, but some of them are in prominent roles, and most of them are, if occasionally silly, generally reasonable and apparently against the idea of going to war just because it sounds like fun.

Two of the lower-level assistants have a brief fling, but that's it for sex in the movie -- personal and political battle is how these folks get their jollies.  General Miller has a reputation for promiscuity, but he also calls himself "the Gore Vidal of the Pentagon", not realizing exactly what that implies until he's told Vidal is gay; later, he makes a point of claiming, "I'm not like some little gay mercenary," while the events of the film show he is quite certainly mercenary in his actions.

The language of all the various  battles, though rich in the variety of its vulgar locutions, is extremely limited in its references, most of which are to some sort of sexual activity, sexual violence, genitalia, etc.  (For some of the most amusing lines, check out IMDB's compendium.)  You don't have to be Sigmund Freud with an erect cigar in your mouth to notice some repression giving itself a good return.

The result is amusing if, like me, you don't mind watching despicable people say despicable things to each other for an hour and a half, all in their quest to help start a war that none of them will fight in and that will certainly kill at least a couple of people who are vastly more deserving of a long life and happiness than any character in the film.

The characters in The Hurt Locker are more complex and sympathetic than the characters in In the Loop, and that includes at least one suicide bomber.  The central character of Staff Sergeant William James (who seems to have a single variety of religious experience: defusing bombs) is the one character in the film to really rise beyond typical war/buddy-movie stereotype, and most of the fault for that seems to be Jeremy Renner's, since he tells us much about James through his eyes, face, and body language.  James is a familiar enough character: tremendously skilled, but also a lone wolf addicted to risk -- sometimes blinded by the addiction, sometimes aided by it.  This could have been, as Jonathan McCalmont pointed out, a role for Mel Gibson, but Renner brings more consistent and complex physicality to this role than Gibson did when mugging his way through the Lethal Weapon movies.

The Hurt Locker isn't really a character study -- or, rather, it isn't just a character study.  This is where addiction comes in.  James is obviously addicted to war, and more specifically to defusing bombs in combat environments.  His addiction warps his relations with everything except the bombs, the things that will, in all likelihood, one day kill him.  He has moments where he saves lives and saves the day, but the film shows us just as many where his addiction distorts his sense of reality, ruins his judgment, and nearly leads to more deaths than just his own.

It's tempting to see James as admirable, even heroic, his macho individualism an essential element of his success, and it certainly may be essential to his success (so far) at defusing bombs, but that success comes at quite a cost to him and to the people around him.

Director/producer Kathryn Bigelow and many critics have proclaimed The Hurt Locker is unpolitical, but I'm with Jonathan Rosenbaum on this one -- while a film about the war in Iraq may eventually, far in the future, be only vaguely interesting on a political level, it's going to have political implications now, when the war is still going on, regardless of how hard the filmmakers work to avoid such implications.  The work of avoiding may muddle the implications or may sharpen them, and in the case of The Hurt Locker, I think they're sharper.

To avoid casting political aspersions, Bigelow and writer/co-producer Mark Boal focused simply on portraying the soldiers and their actions, sticking very closely to their point of view and keeping out any discussion of politics or the meaning of the soldiers' presence in Iraq and the work they do there.  Viewers will apply their own interpretations, as viewers are wont to do, and so, with the title of the movie unfortunately not Socialist Kenyans For Global Peace, Love, and Patchouli!, there will be crazy war nuts who say crazy things, as crazy war nuts are wont to do.  (Some undergraduates also apparently think Stephen Colbert is ironic about his irony.  There will always be outliers, and I, being a tolerant and compassionate liberal, suggest we taunt them mercilessly.)

The key to The Hurt Locker, it seems to me, lies in its portrayal of Iraqis.  After one particularly tense encounter, James says of a taxi driver, "If he wasn't an insurgent, he sure as hell is now."  Again and again, the soldiers are watched by Iraqis, and the impossibility of knowing who wants to kill the Americans and who doesn't is a central theme to every scene between soldiers and civilians.  But it's more complex than that -- as the reluctant suicide bomber toward the end of the film vividly demonstrates both to James and to us, the viewers.  Indeed, some of James's biggest failures happen when he tries to just go out and get the bad guys.  He and his fellow soldiers don't know -- don't, in fact, as the film makes sadly clear, even recognize -- the people they're trying to protect any more than they know the people they're trying to protect them from.  And yet we can't blame the guys on the ground for this -- we feel the immediacy of their situation, not just through good storytelling and acting, but through particularly visceral cinematography and editing -- and so if we're going to rise beyond just liking the movie because it's got soldiers and explosions and guns and stuff, we're forced to think about the system that put these guys here.  And if we've just watched In the Loop, that's not so hard to do.

The final shot of The Hurt Locker is unlikely to cause people to want to organize parades to celebrate endless war.  It is an image of the addict returning for another fix, throwing away everything else in his life for the thrill of one more high -- an image, in short, of futility and waste.


  1. I'm sure you are aware of this but it seems strange not to at least mention that In The Loop is a feature-length version of the British TV series The Thick Of It. I found the film immensely depressing for the reasons you suggest in your last paragraph and the fact I can well believe it was unpleasantly close to reality.

    The characters in The Hurt Locker are more complex and sympathetic than the characters in In the Loop, and that includes at least one suicide bomber. The central character of Staff Sergeant William James... is the one character in the film to really rise beyond typical war/buddy-movie stereotype

    There seems like there is a bit of a disconnect between these two sentences. At the very least, I think this does a disservice to Anthony Mackie's portrayal of Sgt Sanborn.

    As for the political context of the film, I'm not sure we are "forced to think about the system that put these guys here", at least in any specific sense. (Some more thoughts about this .

  2. I saw In the Loop last summer, and was impressed with the way it managed to be hysterically funny right up until it was suddenly utterly depressing. I thought it was one of the best movies I've seen recently, and I also have to admit that for weeks afterwards I kept trying to find excuses to call things "difficult difficult lemon difficult."

  3. Re: the undergraduates who think Colbert is being ironic about his irony: The title of their paper, "The Irony of Satire," is fun in that the terms in that title can be reversed ("The Satire of Irony") almost without substantial loss of meaning.

    When I was an undergrad, getting hit pretty hard with postmodern lit crit and starting to resent it somewhat, I remember making a parlor game out of this: Can the nouns in the title of an academic paper be rearranged and still mean almost the same thing? This trick can be done with more papers than you might think; I remember even coming across a couple that seemed to admit as much, in that they'd name their paper--to use the example above--something like "The Irony of Satire, the Satire of Irony." It was awesome.

  4. I didn't mention The Thick of It simply because I haven't seen it, so don't have anything to say about it. It's not strange to leave it out -- I'm not being the least bit comprehensive here, and didn't mention, among other things, that Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal was an embedded journalist with an EOD team in Iraq, either. Gawd bless the internets, that's why there are links to things like IMDB.

    I don't see a disconnect between the sentences you quote, Martin, so much as a bit of relativity. I think of character depth as a spectrum, and most comedies, and particularly satires, rely on extremely flat (typed) characters and have for eons. In the Loop's characters have moments of self-awareness or development of some sort, but for the most part they are what they are, and the actors have lots of fun embodying that. I don't think The Hurt Locker's creators or actors were trying to embody familiar types of characters -- I expect they were trying to make the characters as individual and developed as they could within the limited space they had to do so -- and they do a pretty good job given how much else they're also trying to accomplish. Hence, they're more complex, which is as much a function of genre as of anything else. I thought Mackie's acting was fine for the role, and he did an excellent job with what he had, but Jeremy Renner's seemed to me a career-making performance, Mackie's a very solid one in a film full of solid performances. On the whole, this seems to me more a film rich with fine ensemble acting than especially noteworthy individual performances, but that, too, seems to me a real accomplishment and one I tend to prefer to films with scene-stealing actors. Renner got that thing every actor dreams of, though -- a particularly meaty role that was a perfect fit for his skills and personality, offering lots of potential for him to realize.

    Which is not to suggest I won't find more in other performances on another (third) viewing when not so captured by the gravitational forces of the plot and Renner's performances.

  5. I agree that there is no need to be (or attempt to be) comprehensive. The Thick Of It does provide some additional context for In The Loop but you don't need that context and its existence doesn't affect the point you are making. What I thought was strange was comparing the film to an extended version of one half hour long naturalistic BBC comedy without acknowledging that it actually is an extended version of another half hour long naturalistic BBC comedy.

  6. Thanks, Martin -- I see what you mean now. I think I'd intended to do something more with the Office comparison (Tom Hollander as Simon Foster reminded me in some ways of Ricky Gervais as David Brent), but that got lost amidst other things, so I can see how the Office reference is a bit odd.