It is both serendipitous and unfortunate that In the Loop and The Hurt Locker, two of the best films of 2009, were released on DVD and Blu-ray the same week. Serendipitous because the two movies exist under the umbrella of the Iraq war (though they focus on different facets and feature wildly disparate tones); unfortunate because they were released amid a post-holiday flood of films.
Due to their subject matter, The Hurt Locker and In the Loop already faced an uphill battle despite widespread critical acclaim; filmgoers in general have not been kind to movies dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Modestly budgeted and lacking a big-studio push, the two also had limited theatrical releases.
But in their own distinctive ways, these movies—one a rapid-fire political satire of the prelude to war, the other a pinpoint-precise action-thriller about an Army bomb squad working the literally explosive streets of Baghdad—are rousing affairs that deserve a larger audience.
In the Loop
An exhilarating symphony of profanity and a brutal skewering of political mores, Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop borrows characters from his British TV series The Thick of It and focuses on the backroom dealings of largely second-tier British and American officials as the threat of war in the Middle East looms (the film never refers to Iraq or Afghanistan specifically, always “the Middle East”).
Tensions and verbal conflict between British and U.S. politicians arise when the bumbling Minister for International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) says in a radio interview that “war is unforeseeable.”
This launches the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications Malcolm Tucker (a tightly wound Peter Capaldi, eyes bulging, veins throbbing and mouth carpet-f-bombing) into an apoplectic fit. Not only were Foster’s words ill-advised as they did not follow the party line, but they were ill-timed as a veritable armada of Washington, D.C., big-wigs is in London when the soundbite breaks.
“We’ve got enough Pentagon goons here to stage a fucking coup d’etat,” Tucker rages at Foster.
Foster digs a deeper hole when he tells a TV crew after the meeting with D.C. elite that: “To walk the road of peace, sometimes we need to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict.”
This further irks Tucker (who tells Foster he sounds “like a fucking Nazi Julie Andrews”), and it positions Foster as a pawn between war-mongering U.S. Assistant Policy Secretary Linton Barwick (the invaluable David Rasche) and Assistant Secretary of State Karen Clark (veteran character actor Mimi Kennedy), who is trying to avoid armed conflict.
Meanwhile, the overwhelmed Foster laments, “I really hope there is no war. It’s going to be a nightmare. It’s bad enough having to cope with the fucking Olympics.” Foster, who continually tries to talk his way out of trouble (at one point saying he’s “on the verge of taking a stand”), brings to mind that great line from The Lady Vanishes in which British foreign policy is described thusly: “Never climb a fence when you can sit on it.”
As the situation unravels amid the endlessly quotable (well, depending on the company) war of words, director and cowriter Iannucci aims his crosshairs at the U.S.-U.K. culture clash (Americans insist on referring to the British as “English”), governmental obsession with acronyms (the film’s MacGuffin, a report outlining the cons of war, is known as PWIP-PIP, though no one can recall what it actually stands for), Washington’s power-hungry youth (“It’s like Bugsy Malone, but with real guns,” observes a British aide) and the very real fears of politicians (while in D.C., Foster is desperate to get out of the hotel “rather than just sitting in my room trying to spank one out over a shark documentary ’cause I’m scared if I watch a porno it’ll end up in the Registry of Members’ Interests”).
The Hurt Locker
Although The Hurt Locker opens with a quote from former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges that states, in part, “… war is a drug” and takes place in Baghdad just a year after the U.S. invasion, it is a war movie only indirectly.
There are no sociopolitical soliloquies, no implied guilt or jingoism.
The movie is almost microscopically focused on three soldiers who comprise an Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad and whose job it is to disarm or safely detonate improvised explosive devices. It’s a task that requires surgical precision in the best circumstances.
The conditions faced by these soldiers are far from ideal. They are operating with limited time and little to no back-up in unforgiving heat while surrounded by people, not all of whom are sympathetic to their plight.
The suspense is as unforgiving as the IEDs, and it is amplified by the film illustrating the effects of a blast; the soldiers know what the relative safety radius is, how the explosion’s shockwave will move up or down a street, and the distance and direction shrapnel will spray. Much of this is depicted in the white-knuckle opening sequence in which director Kathryn Bigelow slows down a blast, lingering on gravel and rubble rising from the street, rust and dirt blowing off abandoned cars, and finally the resulting physical toll on a human who is too close.
The film is almost plotless, its narrative propelled by the natural intensity of following three men whose typical workday happens to revolve around things that blow up.
One of the common complaints about movies that depict combat is that they glorify violence, they make war look exciting. How the men at the heart of The Hurt Locker respond to that inherent sense of exhilaration (one might even say intoxication) is the primary theme Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (himself a former journalist) explore.
For Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), the leader and chief bomb tech of the trio of main characters, war itself may not be a drug, but his job certainly is. Instead of using a remote-control robot to first investigate IEDs, James delves in head-first, at times without the protection of a blast suit, getting a charge by removing a charge.
To the chagrin of his fellow soldiers, the by-the-book Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and the on-edge Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), James on multiple occasions chooses to spend dangerous amounts of time disarming bombs rather than detonating them once citizens have been cleared from the scene. He follows the successful completion of his work with a cigarette, and saves the triggering mechanisms, keeping them in a box under his bed.
And when James is finally shown safe at home with his wife and infant son, he is suffering from withdrawal.