Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Iraq At The Movies

The-Hurt-Locker Kathryn Bigelow triumphed over James Cameron. The low-budget indie film beat the most expensive, highest-grossing film of all time. The ex-wife beat the ex-husband. Woman conquered man.

But what about The Hurt Locker?

You almost forget there’s a movie under the narrative scaffolding surrounding year’s Academy Award winner. So what is The Hurt Locker? It’s a war movie, grim and gritty; it’s an indie film, authentic and rugged in its austerity; and it’s the first movie about the Iraq War to connect with audiences.

But it isn’t the first time a film crew tried to capture the Iraq War. A surprising amount has tried since American tanks rumbled across the Kuwaiti border in 2003; Brian De Palma tried with Redacted; and The Wire creators David Simon and Ed Burns tried with Generation Kill. While De Palma’s film was panned as being heavy on polemics and light on substance, Generation Kill is as good, if not better, than Bigelow’s Oscared film.

American moviegoers are finally paying attention to the Iraq War. What have we been missing?

For the purposes of brevity, I’ll be glossing over a number of films that bear at least mentioning: In The Valley of Elah, one of the first and one of the best; The Messenger, which got Woody Harrelson an Oscar nod this year; and a number of excellent documentaries like Gunner Palace. I’ll pass on The Kingdom, a blasé shoot-em-up with Middle East flavoring, and Body of Lies, interesting but flawed.

Redacted is flawed and uninteresting. It seems to confirm every suspicion it might prompt – that De Palma had his knives sharpened, and made his film with an agenda at its core. “Truth is the first casualty of war,” the trailer tells us. “See what they don’t want you to see.”

Instead of pursuing something deeper than headlines, De Palma went for a fresh wound and based Redacted around a massacre in Al-Mahmudyiah, a town south of Baghdad, in March 2006. Five U.S. Army soldiers participated in the gang-rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, and the subsequent slaying of her family. While the killings stoked rage and shame on the home front, nobody was rushing to their cameras. Except De Palma, who hatched out a piece of anti-war schlock one year later so poor it can only be called propaganda.

Redacted strives for the kind of docu-drama feel achieved by Paul Greengrass’ United 93. It was risky when Greengrass made his film about one of the three planes hijacked on 9/11, only five years after the fact; but action-auteur Greengrass is a master of the shaky-cam, and United 93 was praised for being subtle and sensitive.

De Palma is anything but. Watch this clip from Redacted. It looks like a high school film project, and it feels like the work of an angry mind, frustrated by its own inarticulateness. To tackle a wound so fresh with such crassness is itself a kind of war crime.

Generation Kill is leagues better. Of course it is – Wire creators Simon and Burns nearly fetishize verism. They captured Baltimore down to the gutters. Simon, a former reporter, knows the importance of detail – without the color of the wallpaper, the brand of coffee served to you in a chipped mug, you have no story.

Generation Kill is based on the namesake nonfiction book by Evan Wright. Embedded by Rolling Stone, Wright ditches his assignment to link up with a special forces unit and ends up spearheading the invasion into Iraq. His portrait of highly trained, sardonic killers, cynical and distanced but somehow still soft, still innocent, is probably my favorite work to emerge from the Iraq War. Its fast-and-loose tone is a natural fit for Burns and Simon; between the jargon-laced conversations and the laconic observations on life, love and the Marine Corps, Gen Kill feels more like a road movie than a war flick. And it was true to the Marines, who feature prominently in the DVD commentary. Two even star in the miniseries.

Gen Kill was well-received, but Burns and Simon’s attention to detail may have been too overriding. Some critics were turned off by the jargon; others thought Simon and Burns were too detached from their characters. Reception regardless, Gen Kill didn’t have the venue of The Hurt Locker.

And yes, The Hurt Locker is a fantastic film. It was my pick to win Best Picture, and I’m glad it won. But why did America choose this as its moment to suddenly care about the Iraq War?

Well, maybe I’m wrong to assume that the majority of Americans are either war-is-icky handwringers, ill-informed peaceniks who confuse ‘Democrat’ with ‘pacifist,’ or worse, flag-waving demi-fascists, concerned more with pomp than fact. I lost my best friend to the Sunni Triangle, and watching the nation tune out of the Iraq War as if it were American Idol might have permanently embittered me. But let’s say The Hurt Locker made someone look at the seven-year war with fresh eyes. Let’s assume someone actually gave a damn.

Maybe it was time. It’s notoriously difficult to create a work of fiction about contemporary events. It usually takes generations to pass before something so complex and damaging as the Iraq War can be fully understood and rendered in fiction, but Bigelow’s film is smart, forceful and non-judgmental. Unlike De Palma, she doesn’t try to wring a thesis from the war. She’s more like Burns and Simon, letting facts and details drive the story.

It’s the only way to tell an Iraq War story. It’s almost impossible to draw conclusions before U.S. troops withdraw. Perhaps I’m looking into Bigelow’s success too deeply. Perhaps it’s simply enough to tell the story and tell it well, shelving the knives for later.