Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"The Hurt Locker" and war in American films or The Superfluous Blog

The Academy Awards from Sunday night got me thinking about how films can be a snapshot of prevailing moods and attitudes of the era in which they are made (not merely of which they are made - an important difference). I think there are three different American films centering on war and the military from different periods that are highly illustrative of their respective times: White Christmas, Apocalypse Now, and The Hurt Locker. Each of these films says something different about its filmmaker and the audience that received it.

White Christmas was released in 1954 and starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney. The film follows two army buddies after World War II who decide to throw a gala event for their old Major. Though most of the action in the film takes place in the U.S. during peacetime, war and the military have an undeniable presence in the story. Featuring Kaye’s signature slapstick antics and Crosby’s crooning, the film could almost be described as a love letter to “the Good War.” Danny Kaye’s character suffers an injury during an artillery battle in which his arm is affected for the rest of his life. This injury is used as a comic device throughout the remainder of the film (completely unthinkable in the current political environment). I would be willing to bet that the main reason the film is remembered at all today is because of its theme song heard ad infinitum every Christmas season. Otherwise, this is pretty challenging fare for those who grew up during more cynical times and is exactly the kind of movie that the Baby-Boom generation rebelled against. Simple, soft, and unquestioningly patriotic, White Christmas is indicative of the prevailing American mood of the post-war period. It is the complete opposite of the storytelling that Francis Ford Coppola would attempt 25 years later.

Apocalypse Now is undeniably an anti-war movie. The psychological trauma that Martin Sheen’s character, Benjamin Willard, suffers, the callousness of Robert Duvall’s now-infamous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning… It smells like, I dunno, victory,” and the insanity of Marlon Brando’s Walter Kurtz all confront the audience to re-evaluate its thinking about war and its effects not only on the perceived enemy but also on ourselves. The film’s soundtrack, which features such eclectic pieces as “Ride of the Walkyrie” and “The End” by The Doors, creates a portrait that reflects the mood of America in 1979. A nation crippled by guilt over the loss of morality and sanity asked, “How can we keep history from repeating itself?” Such a film would probably not even be made today, but for different reasons than White Christmas. Soldiers are not treated as saints. Military objectives are not viewed as just and necessary. War is not glorified. It is condemned.

While there are those who condemn the War on Terror, many more people have chosen to remain neutral on the subject for fear of being labeled unpatriotic or in league with terrorists. It is this mood of neutrality that colors the film The Hurt Locker. No stance is taken on the U.S. intervention in Iraq. These characters are not depicted as the kind of care-free grunts seen in White Christmas nor are they depicted as insane, bloodthirsty megalomaniacs like the ones in Apocalypse Now. I wish not to present a false dilemma in this space nor would I insinuate that members of the military are anything less than human. What I do insinuate is that the interests that are primarily served by the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan hide behind the troops to escape impunity of their motives. Kathryn Bigelow cannot criticize the War on Terror, the U.S. government, or any of the corporate contractors that have benefited from the Overseas Contingency Operations because she would be smeared in a media onslaught by every outlet from The New York Times to FOX News to those in the government from both parties as someone possessing the aforementioned undesirable traits. The Hurt Locker is a good film and I do not dispute its winning of Best Picture at the Academy Awards (worse films have received that honor). Still, the film left me feeling cold because of its neutrality. However, upon examining the period in which it was made, it only makes sense that The Hurt Locker would be what it is.

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