On stage with the cast of her latest movie at the Toronto Film Festival last September, Kathryn Bigelow leaned in closely to the microphone to dramatically proffer this greeting to the audience right before the lights went down: “Welcome…to ‘The Hurt Locker.'”
The invitation suggested that we were about to enter both a specific physical place (Baghdad in summer 2004) and psychic space (traumatized warrior masculinity). Once in, there would be no over-explanation, little backstory, no maudlin psychologizing; Bigelow’s film, written by Mark Boal, who spent several weeks embedded with a U.S. Army bomb squad in Iraq, is an assiduous re-creation of rituals, an accrual of tiny details. Calling “The Hurt Locker” the best of the films about the second U.S.-Iraq war — which it is — may sound like damning it with faint praise. More laudably, it is an undeniably visceral experience.
“The Hurt Locker” wastes no time in establishing its sweaty tension, opening with a detonation and a death. Three members of the Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal — Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) and squad leader Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) — have a little more than a month left in their rotation. Eldridge, the most fragile of the trio, is suffering from PTSD and checks in occasionally with the squad’s shrink (Christian Camargo). Though he has a steelier constitution, Sanborn cannot wait to get back home — unlike James, who thrives on defusing IEDs and whose recklessness often puts Eldridge and Sanborn in danger. Sanborn initially calls James a “redneck piece of trailer trash,” but soon the two come to respect each other deeply — a love that’s expressed by beating the hell out of each other.
As James shucks his 100-pound protective suit to figure out the best way to disentangle a trunkful of IEDs, Renner plays the character as inscrutable: Is he a psychopath? An imperturbable professional? Is his character named for the father of American pragmatism, who once famously said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to”? Bigelow’s film is not interested in judging, but observing: how Sanborn sips from a juice box while never taking his eyes off his target in the desert, the kite in the sky after a man blows up in the middle of the road, the use of saliva to clean blood off ammunition. “War is a drug,” a title card states at the beginning of the film. What “The Hurt Locker” shows so well is what happens to those who keep upping their dosage of the narcotic and to those who just say no.
Other coping strategies for life during wartime are uncovered in Havana Marking’s documentary “Afghan Star,” which might have been subtitled “Dance, Dance Revolution.” In 2004, the Taliban-enforced ban on music and dancing was finally lifted in Afghanistan; the next year, the war-torn nation began broadcasting its own “American Idol”-like TV show. Viewers vote for their favorite Afghan Star by mobile phone — the first experience for many Afghanis with the democratic process (even if that includes stuffing the ballot box). Marking’s film follows four finalists, including, remarkably, two women of vastly different sensibilities: the steely yet pious Lema, a 25-year-old from Kandahar (“May God be merciful so that people vote for me”) and 21-year-old convention-flouting Setara from Herat (“I always act according to my emotions”).
“The bend of your eyebrows is like the sting of the scorpion,” Setara sings in one of the semifinal rounds; with lyrics like that, you wish Marking had included more performance footage. The director does show, however, the stunning moment when Setara, swaying innocuously to the beat onstage, unveils her hair: restrictions on dancing may have been loosened, but not for women on national TV — especially those who let their headscarves slip. Marking interviews men who say the singer should be killed; Setara must go into hiding in Kabul before she can return home.
Lema gleefully announces that the Taliban (predominantly Pashtun, like her) are SMS-ing for her to win; a title card at the end of the film announces that she would later receive Taliban-sponsored death threats. The two male finalists, Rafi and Hameed, are intriguing enough onscreen presences, but they can’t compete with the harrowing drama facing the women competitors. “If someone held a knife to my throat, I wouldn’t cry!” Lema, voted off, proclaims backstage to a cameraman who’s goading her to turn on the waterworks. “Afghan Star” may ultimately be too scattershot in its approach, but the story of its unlikely heroines definitely puts obsessing over whether or not Adam Lambert is coming out or the number of times Susan Boyle’s been smooched into perspective.
Melissa Anderson is our guest critic for the month of June.
[Additional photo: Contestants Rafi Naabzada, left, and Lima Sahar, center, in “Afghan Star,” Zeitgeist Films, 2009]