Two wars, no terror - The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow's war-on-terror two-film double-punch of the adrenaline-soaked Hurt Locker, followed by the uncomfortable, brutal Zero Dark Thirty is one of the great cinematic achievements of the last ten years.
Both films present the west's benighted 'War on Terror', with Hurt Locker opting for big emotion and big action, where the weapons of war are the steel and blood of America fighting it in a clearly fictionalised and clearly cinematic conflict, and Zero Dark Thirty opting for a more journalistic and unopinionated take, with minds the weapons, bureaucratic meddling and moral torpor as much the enemy as any force and undisclosed CIA blacksites the battlefield.



Opening with very different quotes, the Hurt Locker opts for the Chris Hodges line "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.", highlighting the final part of that quote. Zero Dark Thirty approaches with "The following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events."

For the Hurt Locker it is the visceral rush of combat, the almost unbearable tension of the walk towards a bomb, the scramble to defuse and the dopamine kick as it is rendered safe. The ethics, the morality, the necessity of the conflict is immaterial. War exists so men can fight.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with calls from victims of the September 11th attacks, and then opens on an extended torture sequence. CIA agents pouring over surveillance photos, torture videos and interrogation notes are punctuated with real news footage of the terror attacks they failed to stop. Hammering home how single-minded the intelligence services became after the war, how all-consuming the lust for blood became.

Action in Zero Dark Thirty is dry, unbearably tense and inch-accurate. The SEAL raid is portrayed as close to reality as possible. The violence is fast and sharp, the focus is on tactics, equipment, and the way the operation develops before the culmination.
There is no celebration though, no real acknowledgement of the historical and cultural importance of the actions of the SEALs. Neither is there heroism or bravado, the tooled-up soldiers are merely skilled machine operators.
The assassination of Bin Laden, the coup to which the rest of the drama has been building, the culmination of ten years of investigation work, occurs without a musical cue or a dramatic camera move, he is dispatched as the rest of the occupants of the house are.
Even for 'Maya', the driven CIA agent the final reveal of Bin Laden's corpse is met with a drained and empty expression. The goal toward which the film has been striving, the target pursuit of which has seen her put too many colleagues in the ground, and thousands of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan; now dispatched without ceremony.
There is no celebration, no sombre medals ceremony. Maya is alone, and the weight of the hunt and the inhumanity ultimately displayed has broken her.

The events of the Hurt Locker have broken their protagonist, too.
But they are not the manifest fears of what the characters, and by extension, America, has become.
The film finds its breath in the titanic explosions, the dramatic defusals and the shattering gunshots. It's soldiers are adrenaline junkies, throwing out protocol and personal safety for ever higher highs until the pressure against the dam finally breaks them.

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