away we go boom!

I used to tell people that the best Iraq war movie so far was Neil Burger’s The Lucky Ones, a wacky road trip comedy that subtly explores the alienation of returning vets from the country they’re fighting for. But as much as I love that film for accurately measuring the distance between the experiences of the American people and that of their soldiers, Kathryn Bigelow’s new film The Hurt Locker, which opened last week in Los Angeles and New York and goes wide soon, is even better. Unbelievably good, in fact. Following an EOD team through the final month of a tour in Baghdad, it’s easily the smartest action film of the summer so far, substituting terrifying real-life scenarios for the usual noise and visual chaos of shape-shifting robots fighting guinea pigs for control of Eddie Murphy’s daughter. Or whatever it’s about this season.

Bigelow, a director I’ve always liked, swings for the bleachers here — every setpiece is cleanly structured around a single, solid idea, and while the situation is often unbearably ambiguous, the audience is never lost. Bigelow skilfully suspends the emotional load of each scene between the two poles of a bomb tech’s life: the professional calm of men who know their job, and the confusion and terror of men who must constantly climb into the jaws of death:

Bigelow leans hard on two amazing lead performances by Anthony Mackie as cool, responsible SGT Sanborn and Jeremy Renner as his new team leader, the unbalanced and dangerously confident SFC James. Sanborn is an audience surrogate, a rational guy appalled by James’s erratic and needlessly risky behavior. But by the end of the film, Sanborn’s calculating approach to risk seems to fail him, while James’s constant dance with death seems like it might be the only way to deal honestly with what EOD techs are asked to do.

Renner is the 2009 equivalent of the necessarily-deranged flyers in Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings, a comedy/drama about men who willingly throw themselves into danger for the sake of the mission. Which makes The Hurt Locker an interesting change from the typically anti-war, anti-military bent of many Iraq movies, which often drape Vietnam-era politics uncomfortably over the framework of a different war and a different Army. Renner’s SFC James is no Colonel Kurtz; he doesn’t lose his humanity. He simply discovers, in war, a tremendous capacity within himself that he would otherwise perhaps never have been able to use. He’s aware, albeit only dimly at times, that the exercise of this talent is costing him too much. But unlike Sanborn, he is unwilling to do the moral and emotional accounting that might force him to change the way he approaches his job.

I suspect the reason I like The Hurt Locker so much is the same reason I like the World War II films made in the 1950s and 1960s, and also the same reason I like The Wire and Homicide: Life On The Streets: all of them were made by people with some experience of the thing they were portraying. Movie stars and filmmakers of the 40s, 50s, and 60s had almost all been drafted, and many had seen actual combat. Similarly, David Simon’s shows about police in Baltimore in the 1990s were so profoundly successful because Simon and his co-writer Ed Burns had spent two decades following the drug war in that city.

The Hurt Locker‘s screenwriter, Mark Boal, fits somewhere between those two types of experiences; Paul Haggis’s In The Valley Of Elah was based on a story Boal had written for Playboy, while Boal’s Hurt Locker script was based on his own experiences in Iraq researching the article “The Man In The Bomb Suit.” Boal isn’t a soldier, but like Evan Wright, he’s gotten close enough to combat and the grimy details of soldiers’ lives to write a script that’s both sympathetic and accurate.

Films across the political spectrum, from Stop Loss to The Marine, tend to treat our combat troops like objects — like political banners, like superheroes, like convenient shorthand for various clusters of associated traits. But it’s rare, far too rare, for filmmakers to simply show us what our soldiers’ lives are like and to let them be the subjects of their own stories.

Burt and Verona make the mistake of thinking that the right city, the right pushpin on the map, will help ease their anxiety about being what Kurt Vonnegut once called “a terribly vulnerable survival unit.” It won’t, of course, but that mistake makes a pretty good jumping-off point for them to survey various models of parenting and family life in Away We Go, a movie I liked a lot more than I thought I would.

Some of these model families have been criticized for veering into caricature — especially Maggie Gyllenhaal’s godawful hippie mom and her hilariously feminine husband:

You can decide for yourself. I thought it was funny.

I’m not a big fan of Sam Mendes — his Jarhead had all the problems mentioned above, and his other movies seem needlessly stagey and emotive and cute. But Away We Go, anchored by a hip Dave Eggers/Vendela Vida script and subtle, charming performances from John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph (as well as a battalion of stars doing minor turns), ultimately won me over. There are a few things I don’t care for — the script completely glosses over how two freelancers are going to pay for maternity care, and a sequence near the end involving a monologue and some morose stripping brought me abruptly out of the film. But overall, this is a terrific, quiet, funny little road movie about the search for roots and home and family.

Plus — Allison Janney. I love her so much. (I tried to find you a good clip of her on YouTube, but the only one I could find was the scene in the airport, which isn’t the best by a long shot. But trust me — she’s awesome.)

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