Monday, July 13, 2009

War Movies 1: My Fuse Is Cute

There's a famous quote by Robert E Lee about war, something he's supposed to have said at the Battle of Fredericksburg, on December 13, 1862. I've seen it in several forms, but the one that sticks in my mind is two sentences: "It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it." (The reason I like this version of the quote, as opposed to the single sentence versions out there, is because it needs the implied "otherwise" between the two sentences. Being who I am, I prefer it because it's the actor version, the one that needs to be interpreted, as opposed to the novel version, which spells out everything for you.) The quote itself, in all its versions, has always said something, not just about war, but about Lee's character -- that Lee was, like most professional soldiers, both horrified by and attracted to warfare. (I can understand. Given my day job, I am both horrified by and attracted to investment banking. And for pretty much the same reasons.)

There aren't many war movies out there that embody this quote. Mostly because they're movies about a particular war, and contain a layer of propaganda that is usually sandwiched somewhere between the plot and the characters, leaking into both of them like the fruit filling of a birthday cake. They answer the question Why We Fight by pointing to a particular enemy that deserves annihilation, or a set of values that need defending; and if there are characters who are born to the battlefield like gunslingers are born to the Wild West, then (just like those gunslingers) they are usually excluded from any post-war life, or treated as the exception, not the rule. Or the exceptional, like Lawrence of Arabia, which may not get all its facts right but certainly gets more truths right in its three hours than an entire shelf of war movies combined.

That's why it's such a pleasure to see The Hurt Locker, which confronts the Why We Fight issue head-on by saying "Because we fucking love it, okay?"

In case you haven't heard, Hurt Locker is the other movie with robots and explosions out in theatres right now, except that none of its robots talk and all of its explosions blow up real people instead of the Pyramids. (I can't wait for Transformers 3, where they destroy the moon. Without, of course, having it affect the tides. Because this is science fiction, remember.) It's about a team of soldiers tasked with disarming Improvised Explosive Devices in the streets of Iraq, and it's edge-of-your-seat stuff for three reasons: (1) the main characters are not played by stars, so all bets are off about who's going to make it to the end of the movie; (2) of the characters who are played by stars, 2 out of 3 of them don't even make it to the end of their scenes, never mind the film; and (3) the direction and camerawork get you so close to the action that there are times when you feel like you're just as much in danger as the soldiers are. One of whom, Jeremy Renner's Staff Sergeant William James, has definitely grown much too fond of the terrible.

Director Kathryn Bigelow has done the Howard Hawks thing with this film: it's not about the war, it's about guys doing a job, and how they rely on each other, what they expect from each other, and what they do for each other. There's an extended sniper sequence in the middle of nowhere in which our three main characters walk in with Label A on their helmets, and by the end of it we've seen B, C, D and E from all of them. And it's not trumpeted or glorified or underscored with anything (especially music, thank God); it's just shown. Which makes it real.

So if you're looking for real? This movie has it: real people, real stakes, real thrills. Go see it. And then we'll talk about how the breakfast cereal scene is the scariest moment of them all.

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