Posts Tagged ‘war’


Life in the Context of Death – A Brief Discussion of The Thin Red Line


At the request of a friend, I recently pulled up Terence Malick’s 1998 war epic The Thin Red Line on my Netflix Instant Queue having little to no knowledge of what to expect. It is now summertime so I’m writing this more for myself than my previous posts (which were all for classes).

My initial reaction to the film was negative. I’m not a big fan of films that consider themselves too good for narrative. The first hour to me felt pretentiously unfocused, not unlike David Fincher’s Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But around the one hour mark something in me started to change. The theme of the film began to emerge. And then I understood why there was such little focus on narrative storytelling. This was not a film about soldiers in a war, this was about life – all life – as it faces its end. The scope of this theme is far to large to portray within the confines of a single character’s arc.

The opening shot of the crocodile (or alligator, I can never tell one from the other) impresses upon the audience the image of a killer. Our first thoughts of that creature go to its strength, its invulnerability. And judging from its confident movements, I’d say the beast has the same feelings of itself. But the next time we see it, about 2/3 through the film, it is tied down and surrounded by hungry looking men with guns. The predator becomes the prey. Every quality of strength we attribute to the animal upon first sight is contradicted by this second image. The great beast is about to meet its end.

There are frequent cutaways in this film that punctuate thematic undertones. My study in soviet montage theory equipped me to understand the goals of this type of juxtaposition. One soldier periodically remembers his wife, and the love between them. Here, love is the fullest expression of life. It is what life strives for. This is the soldier’s reason to live; and possibly, to die. Life is at its most meaningful when death is nearby. And when she sends him a letter requesting divorce, his meaning gives way. Her life needs love and she has the opportunity to fill that need, but only at the cost of his need for her. Those moments he remembers, holding her, touching her, running his fingers through her hair, those are the high points of his life – a life that now stands as something post-meaning. He had meaning when he had her. Now he has neither.

I recall an image of a bird, maybe halfway through the film, that appears to be in its last moments. The bird stumbles along as if there is something in its nature compelling it to move – as if by acting alive it might sustain itself a little while longer.

Of the characters in the film, only Caviezel’s seems to have any clue as to the meaning of death. He longs for his life to reach its climax in a meaningful way. Is there regret for the decision to sacrifice oneself? Not for him, but maybe for the audience.

The film does not necessarily portray death as an evil. Rather, it seems to view death as a necessity. The journey is only significant when there is a destination. Such is life and death.


The Hurt Locker


[This review was written before the movie made it huge at the Oscars.  Since that time, I have come to find the film to be much over-hyped, in contrast to my positive sentiments expressed here.]

If you are the type of person who regularly sits down in your living room with a couple of bucks in your back right pocket and an extremely bored-looking countenance, only to question what it might be like to disarm car-bombs in Iraq, then The Hurt Locker is just the movie for you.  The film is inspired by first-hand accounts of the writer, Mark Boal, who spent time with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team in Iraq.  It focuses on both the stresses as well as the excitements of soldiers who risk their bodies to potential disintegration as they disarm Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) in hostile areas.

The three principle characters are amalgamations of various soldiers that Boal encountered during his time in Iraq.  For instance, the character of Sergeant William James represents the attitude of adrenal addiction.  He feels the need to put himself in danger, and is in many ways a ‘wild card’ of unpredictability.  His team members each represent other attitudes toward war, and the three of them together typify major personalities common in today’s soldiers.

The film opens with a quote from Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”  In this way it reminds us that, while for most soldiers war is hell, for some, it is an excitement without comparison.   There are a few men who enjoy the rush of near-death experiences, and this movie sets out to tell their story.  There are no scenes of commanding officers discussing strategy, no ‘evil Iraqi mastermind’ to personify the enemy, and no political commentary on the meaning of war.  This is simply a movie about clashing personalities under high-stress situations.

On a psychological and philosophical level, this movie says nothing new.  But on a cinematic level, it is in a league of its own.  No other film I have seen presents the audience with a sense of intensity that largely contradicts the calm attitude of the main character.  This goes to the filmmakers’ credit, as it is much more common a ploy for a film to ratchet up the intensity merely by the performances of the actors.  But in The Hurt Locker, the main character is the only calm person in the theater.  Even the camera shakes with anticipation, zooming in on little details, looking for solutions to potentially explosive problems.

In general, the writing here is not particularly original or even terribly interesting, except when carried by the actors and cinematography.  In one scene, the character of Sergeant William James follows a cord in the sand, expecting it to lead to another bomb.  But as he tugs on it, the camera angle cuts to an overhead view of seven bombs being slowly pulled up out of the dirt.  From this angle, the character’s face cannot be seen.  This has the unique consequence of bringing the audience into the threat, whereas in a normal film this would create a distancing effect.  By not seeing the actor’s face, and only being presented with seven individual bombs connected by a single cord, we project ourselves into the center of peril.  In any other film, the human connection is what brings the audience closer, but in this movie, there are shots where the most powerful images are presented to us by way of character anonymity.  This obscurity presents a somewhat ‘everyman’ psychology in the audience’s interpretation of the soldiers.  If the face is what makes a person unique, then that is precisely what the filmmakers’ have attempted to avoid.  It’s the uniform that matters.  What a soldier is wearing determines who he is.  A man in a bombsuit is in danger by default.  Without any identifying characteristics, the audience becomes immersed in the image, feeling as if it is we who are in the bombsuit, a flinch away from having our ashes swept to the wind.

As mentioned previously, a downside to this film is its writing.  It feels as if many of the scenes have hardly any relation to each other, and little effect on the primary character arcs.  While the majority of these scenes are interesting and engaging in themselves, they struggle to find relevance in the overall story.  In one such scene, a soldier subtly threatens to kill the sergeant as tensions begin to surface around the recklessness of the main character.  The goal here is to show the stresses of the battlefield, but the problem with a scene like this is simply that no other time in the movie is the soldier’s comment or even the threatening concept presented again.  They mention it once, and take it seriously for a moment, never to bring it up again.  This in many ways is deceptive to the audience, as we have a set up with no payoff.

As a whole, The Hurt Locker succeeds brilliantly at what it sets out to do: putting the audience in the thick of the threat.  No matter how much the main character thrills in the danger, there is still a very present intensity throughout the film.  There is something about Kathryn Bigelow’s superb direction that demands a sense of audience interaction, and it is primarily this effect that provides the cathartic feeling at the end.  Because in all honesty, the characters grow very little over the course of the movie, but the audience is changed forever.  That is the effect of good filmmaking.  And a good film is exactly what this is.