Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Aren't we all supposed to love our work?

Haven't we all been regaled by preachers and teachers: "Love what you do, and do what you love" "Find a job you love, and then do it with all your heart"?

What happens if you're a professional soldier?

A specialist in disarming bombs? The infamous IEDs of Iraq?

Staff Sergeant William  James (Jeremy Renner) is just such a man. Living on the edge 24/7 - a bag full of bomb pieces - timers, fuses, wiring harnesses - puzzle pieces, souveniers, from earlier assignments - the man is a genius with an uncanny curiosity and confidence. He loves his work, putting himself in harm's way time and again. His own bomb squad is skeptical - is Sergeant James hotdogging it? Putting himself, his team, at risk, with his feats of daring-do?

While on patrol in the bleak countryside of Iraq, the unit comes under sniper fire. Quickly taking cover, and taking a few hits, the unit digs in and begins to look for the source of the sniper fire. They quickly discover a small block building hundreds of yards removed, and now begins a cat and mouse game.

Sergeant James is on the binnoculors - a unit member with a 50 caliber sniper rifle with scope begins to track the snipers - one in the building, the other on the roof. A long hot waiting game begins. The weapon jams; there's blood all over the magazines taken from a fallen comrad. With a measured determination, a strangely detached approach - a job has to be - the Sergeant takes charge of cleaning the magazine.

Loaded and ready, the enemy located, the weapon is fired.

Sergeant James, "You're high and to the left." Adjustments are made - and the first kill of the day is made. More waiting. It's hot - dessert dust coating everything. And then another kill - the final kill of the day, or is it? They wait, and finally Sergeant James says, "We can go home now."

As the days of his tour wind down, we want this incredible specialist do his job - his unit pull together and weather the various storms of the soul.

In one of the most powerful moments of the film, an Iraqi citizen approaches a check point with his arms up, shouting - "I have a bomb strapped to me." And not just strapped, but locked with heavy padlocks - the man is clearly a sacrifical lamb.

The sergeant, dressed in a heavy bomb suit, approaches and calms the man - succeeds in cutting off one of several padlocks, but the whole cage-like affair is just too much. The timing mechanism, a cheap watch, is ticking down. Trying furiously to disarm the bomb, Sergeant James has no more time left in the tangled web of wires. He looks at the man, tells him there's no more time, turns and hurriedly walks away.

With great editing, we watch the Sargeant, from a variety of views, lumber away to safety, while the Iraqi, resigned to his fate, falls to his knees, hands outstretched, praying, the camera on his face - we're there.

In a moment, the man disappears in a violent explosion ... a sad, heart-wrenching moment, but just another moment in this incredible job.

Sergeant James loves his work.

The film shifts to the Sergeant back home, tour ended - with a woman he loves - in a grocery store. She's doing the shopping, but she's asked him to get some cereal, and there he stands, with his empty shopping cart, all alone in the cereal aisle, 10,000 boxes from which to choose - frustrated and bewildered, he finally grabs a box of anything. From the streets and deserts of Iraq to the cereal aisle.

In a few weeks, he says, "They need bomb disposal people." He returns for another year of duty, to the helter-skelter world of Iraq, to this land of adreniline-pumping, death- defying, winning and losing, blood and guts, world of the professional.

 The final scene - dressed in his bomb suit, he's walking down a deserted street toward a bomb - he's alone. A man with job to do. A job he loves.

Without being political, this film successfully explores the world of the professional soldier and what it's like to love a dangerous, violent, job.

The film, lovingly, gives us an insight into the strange world of men and women asked to kill or be killed - living with death, with blood on their hands, metaphorically, and literally, as they cradle a dying comrade in their arms.

The grocery store cereal aisle is as befuddling to them as the streets of Bagdhad would be to us.

I came away from this film with a greater love for the professional army we've created over the years - these people are precious. They are doing a job we've asked them to do, and many of them do what we all try to to do - behind the desk, at the assembly line, wherever - to do what we love, and to love what we do.

And if the news is accurate, we're not doing enough to honor them - forget the schmaltz of parades and medals - I'm talking about taking care of their families back home, for one thing: that housing and medical care for spouses and children would never be a question. That proper armament and everything they need is readily available. That we understand their role and how hard, if not impossible it is for them, to re-enter a civilian world.

We have created a professional army. We have asked them to do a terrible job, and like human beings anywhere, and Americans especially, they love what they do, and they do what they love.

No wonder the suicide rate is so high. The cereal aisile is a dangerous place, a strange and forboding zone in which the professional soldier feels trapped and alone. He's not qualitifed for cereal; he is qualified, more than qualified, to join his unit in war - to face the enemy the politicians have created, and to love what he does and do what he loves.

Can we ask of them anything more?

And can we not do better by all of them?

This is a powerful film with a message about our professional army.

Hats off to Kathryn Bigelow (director) for bringing this fine piece of film-making to the screen. Without romance or schlock, without glorifying anything, she tells a basic story of a man who loves his work!

See it when you can!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Public Enemies

Something is wrong with this film.

It doesn't work very well for me.

Technically, everything is here, and it's all good ... but put it all together, and it's a ho hum film.

I think too much was attempted - it's tough to do a bio-pic - how do you reveal a huge characters like Dillinger and Purvis?

Johnny Depp, of course, as Dillinger ... but the portrait is flawed - too nice a guy - the reality: Dillinger was a killer. I think Depp is a terrific actor, but something didn't click here. The cold-blooded character of a killer didn't emerge. Sure, Dillinger might have been a nice guy now and then, but the raging fires of a troubled childhood and a life of prison and crime never emerges. This is not a role to be played with the elan of "Pirates of the Carribean." Perhaps a bit too cavalier.

Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the man who "gets his man" does a far better job then he did in "Terminator." Cool, calm, collected, relentless, and maybe that's the issue for the whole film - just too cool! Bale reminded me of Robert Stack - cool and calculating. A good role for Bale, but again, the characterization lacked fire - Stack had it, so did Kevin Kostner playing Elliot Ness in "The Untouchables." Is this lack of fire a question for the director?

The love between Dillinger and Billie Frechette  (Marion Cotillard) is muted ... somehow or other, the desperation of two lovers in a losing game of life never makes it to the surface - there's no fire, no passion, not even any good old fashioned lust. In every relationship, something is at stake - something vital, powerful, even crazy. But what's at stake here? Was Bille trying to escape a life of being a coat-check girl? Was Dillinger looking for true love? None of that emerges. It's like, okay, so what? Who cares?

As I watched the story unfold, I wasn't rooting for anyone ... too little was at stake.

I think of Ron Howard's "Apollo13" - we all knew how it was going to end, but as the story unfolded, Howard had us all on the edge of our seats. We all suspected that maybe there'd be another ending.

We all know how it's going to end for Dillinger, but no seat-suspense here. No suspicion of another story. No hope that maybe Dillinger and Billie will find true love after all.

As for movie-going enjoyment, can't beat old cars careening through a city, bad guys and good guys standing on the running boards, trench coats streaming, firing away with a Thompson machine gun.

The music is terrific ... I think ... and maybe that's a good sign - I felt the music, as good film music should be.

The sound is awesome - the harsh crash of big caliber weapons ... the sound of prison doors closing ... assorted thuds and bumps ...

The period is beautifully captured  ... but even here, everything seems too stylistic, too clean, more Disneyland than real. I wanted more grit, smoke and dirt; this needed to be a dark film, searchings of the soul - anger, power, hatred - everything here just too cool.   

Clearly, some Oscars here for Michael Mann in terms of technique - maybe sound, maybe music, maybe costuming, but not Best Picture, and I doubt if any of the actors will even be nominated ... but, then, who knows.

The line-up of actors is impressive - how much did Mann pay for this stable?

But the story didn't cut it.

Is this one to see in the theater?

If you're looking for a movie to fill in the gaps, sure.

But otherwise, get it on Netflix.