This holiday season, Katherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker will be released on DVD. Those who have seen the film will know its striking depiction of the day-to-day lives of US soldiers stationed in Bagdad makes the film worth a trip to the shops. But The Hurt Locker’s astonishing, tension-ridden drama is not the only factor that makes it stand out from its predecessors. Instead it was this film that broke an ongoing trend by becoming the first great motion picture to be made about the current Iraq War.
With the invasion of Iraq on March 20th 2003, this decade was given its Vietnam. Parallels were immediately apparent between the two wars, both were poorly planned, poorly executed and unprovoked strikes based on meager reasoning. But if you ignore all the horror and controversy, you really can’t deny that Vietnam brought about some cracking films. In 1978 The Deer Hunter was released and was soon followed in the ensuing years by films like Apocalypse Now, Go Tell the Spartans, Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Forth of July. In fact nearly every major American conflict of the past century has inspired some excellent films. The Cold War has The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dr Strangelove and The Hunt for Red October, the First Gulf War has Three Kings and Bob Roberts and the list for World War II is endless. Now understandably most of these films were made after the wars themselves had concluded. But given our generations’ media saturation, tech savvy and tendency towards impatience, movies about the Iraq war could probably have gone into production on March 21st. And in the last seven years, despite no end in sight, many films have been made about the Iraq war and its effects. However it seemed that when it came to Iraq, audiences simply were not interested. But who could blame them when we were presented with a string of films that replaced substance with melodrama. Never mind the weapons of mass destruction, where’s our Apocalypse Now?
In 2005 Hollywood dipped its toe in the water with Sam Mendes’s Jarhead. Despite being set during the Gulf War in the early nineties, the film managed to get around this by cleverly referring to it as “The Iraq War” throughout. But while Mendes film never really lives up to it’s trailer (and with Kanye doing the music, what could?), it did have some outstanding scenes. Nevertheless Jarhead’s lack of impact can really be attributed to its originality; almost everything the film shows had been done before. We’ve seen the horrors of war, we’ve seen the boredom of war and we’ve seen the gloomy coming-home scene and the sleepless night of anguish scene. The film itself even acknowledges this in the scene when Jake Gyllenhaal hears “Break on Through” by the Doors, and screams out “That’s Vietnam music…cant we get our own music?” A contemporary war film should approach the issues in a way unique to the specific conflict, not dole out tired clichés in new surroundings. Jarhead is solid where it should have been exceptional and for every piercingly tragic scene in the film, you know deep down that it’s been done by Kubrick, Coppola, or Stone, in a better way.
Following Jarhead’s lackluster release, producers initially seemed to be shying away from portraying the conflict on screen. In 2006 Home of the Brave starring Curtis “50 cent” Jackson, Jessica Biel and Samuel L. Jackson was released. The film tells the story of a group of traumatised Iraq war veterans returning home. But despite some surprisingly intense performances Home of the Brave couldn’t find an audience and passed into obscurity. However much of the film’s failure can be attributed to the depressingly prescient subject matter. In 2006 the war was in full flow and with bodies being shipped home everyday and two years left in George Bush’s second term, nobody was in the mood to watch 50 cent as a weeping veteran.
But similar melodramas continued to be made, regardless of audience interest. 2007 saw the release of Grace is Gone in which John Cusack agonizes over telling his daughters about their mother’s death in Iraq. Although Cusack gives a touching performance, this was a film that wallowed in misery than actually depict the reality of the war. In a similar vein was Paul Haggis’s In The Valley of Elah, which followed Tommy Lee Jones investigating the death of his Iraq veteran son. Again despite strong acting, which was critically praised, the story was too bleak to have any significant cultural impact. Robert Redford’s anti-war lecture Lions for Lambs also explored similar issues, but was mauled by the critics for being too preachy, badly directed and starring Tom Cruise. Brian DePalma’s Redacted, a documentary style film about the rape and murder of a 14 year old Iraqi girl by US Troops, came close to breaking the trend. However although it received wide critical praise, the conservative American press labeled the film as leftist propaganda and against the troops (despite being based on a real incident), and the film failed to find an audience outside of the film festivals.
By 2008 the label “Iraq war film” had become a hurdle. Any movie purporting to be about the conflict was automatically destined for failure. Audiences simply did not want to be reminded of the daily horrors currently going on in Iraq. In a brave move Boy’s Don’t Cry director Kimberly Pierce attempted to tackle the subject with her 2008 film Stop-Loss. Despite the marketing looking like Tommy Hilfiger ads, the film itself wasn’t a complete disaster. It’s depiction of loyal soldiers torn between duties to family and country was well handled, but the film inevitably failed at the box office. It now appeared as if Iraq was cinematic kryptonite, nobody was interested in seeing the conflict on the big screen. But then just when it appeared that a great Iraq War Movie was about as likely as an viable exit strategy along came The Hurt Locker.
Last September, The Hurt Locker’s director Kathryn Bigelow told a reporter about a misconception regarding the failure of movies dealing with the Iraq War. “They’re about soldiers reintegrating into the home front” she said, “this film is about war, which is inherently dramatic.” She couldn’t be more right. Whereas previous films had only partially depicted the conflict itself, The Hurt Locker offers up Iraq, as it has never been seen before. This was in a different class to the other films in the genre, gone were the glum storylines about absent doe-eyed girlfriends, as were the sad scenes of missing comrades that were inevitably set to mournful rock music. The Hurt Locker showed the Iraq war as pure conflict, with the action as the primary focus and everything else secondary. The film doesn’t have a distinct storyline; instead it follows a week in the lives of three bomb disposal experts as they make their rounds in Bagdad. Eschewing the clichés that scuppered its predecessors, Bigelow’s captures taut, explosive combat in its purest form. Where Home of the Brave and Stop Loss have overwrought politics and clunky dialogue, The Hurt Locker has raw, white knuckle tension and a strong, clear-cut script. Mission Accomplished.
So even through the Iraq war still rages on, with no clear end in sight, at least the films are gradually improving in quality. By no means a justification, but maybe a small compensation.