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War, Economy, History: Politics by Other Media

2010 August 3
by Morris Dickstein

Published in Dissent, Summer 2010.

When Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker, swept the Academy Awards, it was a signal triumph for a plucky independent movie on a grave topical subject. Directed by a woman and made in Jordan without the usual cooperation from the Department of Defense, the movie was not released during awards rush at the end of the year but in the summer, ordinarily a time for mindless comedies and action films. Very much an action film itself, it reached out to a mass audience but did not find it, despite a sheaf of excellent reviews. In no way polemical, set in 2004 at a low point in the war, it was full of gripping life-and-death scenes that neither glorified the war as a scene of heroism nor condemned it for the political deception, wretched planning, and wanton loss of life that made those years so disastrous. Instead, like the best World War II movies, it focused on the tensions within a small group of men doing a dangerous but essential job.

Most popular films trying to engage weighty matters like war or politics inevitably personalize the conflicts but also resort to conventional thriller devices that trivialize the subject or dispose of it superficially. Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, built around a Tony Blair-like figure and his clueless aide, a ghost writer helping him with his memoirs, works beautifully for an hour and half, but then devolves into a far-fetched thriller hinging on the machinations of the CIA. Jim Sheridan’s Brothers, based on an earlier Danish film, recounts the absorbing story of a marine officer, presumed dead in Afghanistan, who returns home, haunted by something terrible he did as a captive there, only to find that his wastrel brother has gotten very close to his wife. Though sensitively directed and impressively acted by a first-rate cast, the movie is subverted by contrived turns of plot, a few lurid scenes, and the threadbare motif of the traumatized, emotionally unhinged war veteran.

One problem is that cataclysmic events like the September 11, 2001, attacks or the Iraq War received exhaustive media coverage. Journalistic yet fictionalized accounts have little to add, and audiences, already depressed by what actually happened, have little desire to revisit it. They stay away in droves.

Some war movies, along with many movies on political subjects, are simply thrillers from start to finish, with ample suspense but little purchase on reality. But The Hurt Locker, written by a reporter (Mark Boal) who was embedded with a unit dismantling explosive devices, brings the war home in a different way. Unfolding at a time when Iraq itself had become one large minefield for American forces, it opens with a breathtaking prologue showing a soldier killed while trying to disarm such a device. His replacement, played by Jeremy Renner, is a classic American figure, the loner, the cowboy, the war lover. Gifted with foolhardy courage and resourceful know-how, he gets an adrenaline rush from plunging into danger. He takes chances that frighten his fellow soldiers, including Anthony Mackie, a black man, equally courageous but cautious, sensible, a team man who plays by the rules and wants to stay alive. The tension between them makes for the heart of the movie.

With its brilliant use of mobile and handheld cameras and a vividly realistic soundtrack and detonations, The Hurt Locker feels like some ideal television coverage of one terrible war. The subjective camerawork conveys the agitation and fear endemic to urban warfare, with no front, where every scene, every civilian, must be scanned as a potential threat. Wherever possible the team uses wellprogrammed robots (think WALL-E) to disarm explosives, a form of mechanized warfare that gives the film a playful, Star Wars touch. But Renner’s wild man character, something of a rowdy loner, takes us back to the film’s epigraph from reporter Chris Hedges: “war is a drug.” This must also refer to the war as a whole, a “war of choice,” a piece of American hubris. Gifted at what he does, Renner is thwarted only by domestic life back home, where we see him stupefied by the hundred varieties of cereal on the supermarket shelf. In Iraq he is surrounded by stealth combatants whose ingenuity he admires, yet his passion for danger brings him alive, even as it terrifies everyone around him.

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The main lesson to be drawn from this riveting film is that only an oblique angle of vision, not a head-on encounter, can do justice to a large public conflict depleted by journalistic attention and political rhetoric. The same can be said of the other really fine Iraq War film of 2009, Oren Moverman’s The Messenger, a quieter movie that should have received some of the accolades lavished on The Hurt Locker. Set on the home front, it also deals with the tension between two soldiers, whose mission is not to deactivate bombs but to inform the next-of-kin of fatal casualties. This can lead to another kind of explosion: anger, grief, even violence. The senior officer, a barely recovered alcoholic played by Woody Harrelson, does this painful work by strict formula: an impersonal message, formal regrets from the secretary of defense, no grief counseling, no real contact, and especially no touching, no matter how emotional the scene becomes. His new partner, the messenger of the title, played with unfathomable depth by Ben Foster, has only partly recovered from injuries sustained from a bomb in Iraq, and he eventually balks at the detachment these rigid rules impose on him. “We walk into these people’s lives, we don’t know shit,” he says. “Fuck procedure. They’re human beings.” Dumped by his girlfriend while he was at war, plagued by guilt over the death of a fellow soldier he had tried to rescue, he is attracted to a woman (Samantha Morton) whom he has just informed of the death of her husband.

Unlike some of the other bereaved survivors, Morton has taken the news with exceptional dignity. The war, it turns out, had changed her husband, made him coarse and unfeeling, no longer the man she loved and married. But as far as the world can see, Foster seems to be taking advantage of her vulnerability. A damaged man, he needs a real person in his life, where Harrelson, the classic tough guy, needs only an easy lay for the night or weekend. Eventually, in the way of most buddy movies, the angry differences between the two men come to a head, and they spill their guts to each other.

The movie, like Sheridan’s Brothers, focuses less on the war than on the human connections sundered by war. Each of the half-dozen grim announcements the men undertake elicits a different reaction, ranging from fury or hysteria to passive, sorrowful acceptance. The army’s impersonal code proves unequal to the emotional strain of these tragic losses. Foster’s role is mostly a silent one; the camera spends much of the time exploring his brooding face and lanky, restless frame, tormented by feelings he can scarcely understand or express. Instead, he works out ferociously or punches a hole in the wall. Masculinity in The Hurt Locker is a form of acting out, playing John Wayne; in The Messenger it’s the obligation to seal things in, to keep emotions at bay. One movie, a noisy one, sees the war as dangerously intoxicating; the other tallies up the deficits that flow from it, above all the internal injuries. Neither is directly “about” the war, which is why they pursue its fallout so effectively. They find an unexpected opening that enables them to humanize an unbearable subject.

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Another indirect way of grasping the effects of social trauma, surprisingly, is comedy. We don’t yet have films that do justice to the Great Recession—such catastrophes take time to be assimilated—but the first good try may be Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, a film planned before the economic collapse. Based on a 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, it’s about a gun for hire, a man (George Clooney at his most insidiously charming) brought in by downsizing companies to fire people. Traveling constantly, building up his frequent flier miles as a lofty target, he lives happily in the sterile environment of airports, planes, and hotel rooms, at great remove from the messy actualities of people’s lives, especially those he sends packing. (The movie is dotted with scenes from up in the air, bird’s-eye views of the American landscape.) Like Woody Harrelson, he muffles the impact of his work with antiseptic formulas, scrupulously avoiding words like “fired” the way Harrelson shuns “died” or “killed.” But, as in the classic romantic comedies, he meets his match in a woman— two women, actually—one (Vera Farmiga) who also lives to travel, the other (Anna Kendrick) belonging to an efficient younger generation, who thinks people can be fired even more impersonally, by computer. Joining his firm, she effectively threatens to fire him, making his job redundant and bringing him back to Omaha, where he lives as the occasional visitor, in a home starker than any hotel room.

As in any romantic comedy (but with an economic twist), Clooney’s smug self-sufficiency must be brought to heel. He feels obliged to show Kendrick that her high-tech approach to terminating workers is too heartless: “There’s a dignity to the way we do it,” he says. But his hollow, formulaic sympathy for his victims shows up the whole enterprise. Meanwhile he begins to fall for Farmiga, who had seemed happy to remain his occasional lay, his narcissistic double: “Just think of me as yourself, only with a vagina,” she tells him as they’re getting to know each other. But she turns out to have a life of her own, with no room for serious romantic involvement, which leaves him adrift, as much alone as he boldly claimed he wanted to be. No happy endings here.

In most romantic comedy, love prevails over resistance and suspicion, but here the formula is set up to be exploded. Clooney’s neat prescriptions for eliminating redundant workers founder as well, undermined by the filmed responses of real people who had actually been fired, people in Detroit and St. Louis whom Reitman interviewed once the recession got under way. Clooney’s breezy charm gives the movie its brio, but these cameos of the unemployed, like the reactions of the bereaved in The Messenger, give this high concept fable its bite and aftertaste, its touch of authenticity. While future movies about the recession may focus more on documenting damaged or grimly marginal lives, this comedy proved surprisingly effective at tallying human losses even in a “jobless recovery.”

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Such an oblique approach works well not only for contemporary issues, which usually need time to marinate before being thoughtfully addressed, but also with overexposed historical subjects. One of them is the rise of fascism, which Bernardo Bertolucci (adapting an Alberto Moravia novel) handled in The Conformist by tracing the evolution of a fascist personality. In A Special Day, Ettore Scola took on an unlikely relationship between a beleaguered homosexual (Marcello Mastroianni) who has lost his job and an overworked housewife (Sophia Loren) whose family has gone off to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s 1938 visit to Italy. Two new entries, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere (Win), relocate our perspective on fascism even further.

Both films begin in the years just before World War I, supposedly a time of innocence, before the mass horrors of the twentieth century; the very word Sarajevo intrudes into them like a tolling bell. The White Ribbon is the best yet of Haneke’s bleak studies of cruelty, corruption, and evil. An old man looks back from the 1970s to recall the mysterious doings when he was a schoolteacher in a small north German town: mischievous accidents, deaths, and suicides, children molested by adults or hazed and tortured by other children. The town is dominated by a rigid patriarchal system epitomized by a feudal baron, who is the local landlord, and his family; by a severe minister who keeps a disciplinary stranglehold over his children; and by a widowed doctor who abuses his fourteen-year-old daughter and spews contempt at his mistress, a homely midwife helping him raise his children. In the axis of the film, these domineering fathers spawn a band of quietly vicious children, a toxic younger generation that will eventually invest its collective will in Hitler. Their superficial innocence, like the picturesque surface of the town, is a mask for profound corruption. The only genuine innocence belongs to the powerless schoolteacher, thwarted when he tries to get to the bottom of all the violence, and to his young fiancée, a scapegoat when she is fired as the nanny of the baron’s children. He provides the eloquent but distant voiceover that pieces the story together many years later.

To call this the genesis of fascism, of course, is an overstatement, a historical conceit on Haneke’s part. But it would be hard to imagine a more powerfully realized portrait of village life before the war. The black-and-white cinematography and static camerawork, along with a meticulous recreation of the look of the times, creates a visual census on a par with the photographs of August Sander. Intimate close-ups are reserved for the teacher and his intended, as if only they were moved by genuine feeling; others are portrayed at a great remove, to show how rigidly circumscribed they are by their setting and the social roles they play. The children roam around mysteriously in bands and act stricken when adults interrogate them. We almost never see acts of violence, only its results; they are the town’s buried secrets. But verbal violence, masking itself in respectability, is there on the surface, stinging words that enforce a stagnant social order.

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This choked atmosphere is completely different from the superheated scene in Vincere, which centers on the young Benito Mussolini and the woman he marries and discards, along with their child, in his relentless rise to power. When he makes violent love to her we see the glint in his eyes, already fixed on wider conquests, as he gazes greedily over her shoulder. Then he races to the balcony, stark naked, to imagine a vast adoring crowd at his feet. Described this way it seems like the story of a crudely opportunistic man, drunk on adulation, who screws his mistress the way he’ll ruthlessly screw the whole nation. First a socialist, fiercely against war, critical of the power of the church, he eventually gets into bed with all the forces he once opposed, signing a concordat with the church and making war and empire the heart of his demagogic appeal. He lauds Futurist art for its glorification of war and looks back to the Roman Empire as his model. Bellocchio, born in 1939, splices in newsreels of Mussolini’s speeches that must reflect his generation’s puzzlement that Il Duce could seduce a nation with such clownish antics. The dictator’s rejected son—played by the same actor, Filippo Timi, who embodies the young Mussolini—even parodies his father’s public mannerisms in a wild display of mockery and attraction, for he longs to be recognized by him.

For better or worse, however, the film belongs to Mussolini’s cast-off lover, Ida Dalser, played with operatic grandeur by Giovanna Mezzogiorno. Her obsession with Mussolini gradually turns her into something like the mad heroines of the bel canto tradition. She is not mad except in her lifelong refusal to surrender her claim on him, but the regime shunts her off into asylums, foreshadowing the way later dictatorships would silence their dissidents. She writes endless letters to people in power, none of which reach their destination, and she destroys her own life by refusing to give up. Finally, both she and her son die in mysterious circumstances, supposedly of natural causes.

Dalser’s full story became known only in the last few years, in two books and a television documentary that inspired Bellocchio’s film. Besides the ever-present fascination with fascism, part of its appeal is contemporary. Mussolini came to power from journalism the way the current prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, built his political career on his media empire, which deflects most effective opposition and shelters him from criticism. He too has been embarrassed by his sexual adventures. Though Bellocchio has told interviewers that he sees no nostalgia for Mussolini in Italy today, he implicitly suggests an analogy in the concentration of wealth, social influence, and political power in a single man.

The weakness of the film, despite overwhelming performances, is that it feels so airless to be locked in with Mussolini’s ranting and Dalser’s obsessions, which are purely personal, in no way political. This is the disadvantage of this kind of indirect treatment of urgent social or historical concerns: the unusual angle they provide can seem like no angle at all, only a projection of the filmmaker’s recurrent obsessions: Haneke’s preoccupation with the moral rot that festers beneath the social surface, Bellocchio’s fascination with how large personal emotions— such as Mussolini’s overweening ambition, his sense of himself as Italy’s savior—intersect with political life to influence the destiny of nations. But the alternative is the repetition of stale journalistic or historical clichés, which only a few rigorous directors (such as Roberto Rossellini) have managed to avoid in taking on such momentous social subjects.

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