The Hurt Locker

The following review was originally published by Unbound Culture in Fall 2009.  It is a response to an essay written by David Sterritt and published by CounterPunch in July 2009.

In an essay published in CounterPunch on July 24, 2009, David Sterritt writes of the Iraq war film The Hurt Locker:  “While the film is excellent in some respects, its politics are worrisome—not because they’re wrong, but because there are no politics in a film about the most politically fraught conflict in recent memory.”  The essay continues in this vein, pointing out that the film’s “political void represents a sorely missed opportunity for its makers.”  Sterritt even goes so far as to contrast The Hurt Locker with Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.  Compared with the “rich complexity” of these films, “each episode of The Hurt Locker is a marvelously wrought specimen of suspense-movie technique, and that’s all it is, apart from a few isolated scenes.”

Sadly, Sterritt does not care to mention which isolated scenes, for him, achieve the same level of richness and complexity as Coppola’s and Kubrick’s films.  However, I hope to show that there is more going on in The Hurt Locker than just “suspense-movie technique.”

First, a film (or any work of art) does not need to be political.  Why can’t a movie set in Iraq in 2004 tackle deeper, more timeless topics (i.e., the isolating effects of war on soldiers, the traumatizing effects of imminent death, and the existential paralysis of a humanity faced with a desert of nothingness)?  The Hurt Locker does this boldly, and I applaud director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal for crafting what I find to be a philosophically potent and morally challenging motion picture experience.

The Hurt Locker follows three soldiers in an EOD unit tasked with disarming IEDs—roadside bombs and the weapons of choice for insurgents.  In the opening scene, we see just how serious these bombs are.  In one of only a few instances where we are taken out of the naturalistic, documentary-style cinematography of Barry Ackroyd (United 93), the action switches to slow motion, and we get sharply edited pictures of an explosion—from the immediate disruption of the sand and earth to the effects of the shockwave on nearby objects and people.  We now know—this is a serious job, and those who do it must be crazy.

They’re not—at least not Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty).  But they’re soon joined by the reckless and mysterious Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner).  We first see James in his room removing protective covering from his windows, despite Sanborn’s warnings that the covering is there to guard from shrapnel.  We next see him on a mission, and again, despite Sanborn’s pleas to inspect a suspected IED with a bomb disposal robot, James insists on putting on a bombsuit and inspecting it himself.  We start to see what makes James tick—he’s a thrill seeker.  He’s willing to put his life and the lives of others at risk just for the rush, the feeling of being alive, that comes with being so close to danger—to death.  This annoys the hell out of Sanborn, a professional soldier who plays by the rules, quotes protocol, and thinks this is how you win a war.

James and Sanborn do eventually form an uneasy friendship, but their respective philosophies grate on each other.  For example, after a successful mission, the soldiers have a few drinks, and Sanborn and James play a game to see who can take each other’s punches.  When Sanborn gets knocked to the ground, James gets on top of him, pretending to ride him like he’s a wild beast.  But Sanborn isn’t the wild beast.  If anything, Sanborn represents logic, reason, and humanity.  It’s James who’s the wild beast (he’s even called a “wild man” more than once in the film).  So what does it mean that James tames Sanborn?  It’s the victory of unreason over reason, the victory of the animal over the man—it’s the nature of war and what it does to people.  To be sure, how does Sanborn finally overcome James?  He pulls a knife on him.  Where reason fails, he must resort to violence.  He must become, like James, a wild man.

Did Sterritt simply miss the interesting battle of ideologies between these two characters?  It’s possible—he also seems to have missed one of the most interesting sequences in the entire film.  In his essay, he writes:  “And why, in this equality-conscious Hollywood era, does the film push Iraqis into the margins, using them as only as momentary foils for the American guys, and two-dimensional foils at that?  Questions, questions, none of which Boal and Bigelow take on.”  No?  On the contrary, I think the film asks the same question Sterritt does—and also provides an answer.

True, the Iraqis are portrayed as worlds apart from our protagonists—separated as they are by language and culture.  And we experience them the same way the soldiers do—foreign, malevolent, other.  That’s the easy answer to Sterritt’s question, but he thinks the film doesn’t go any further.  It does.

Near the film’s midpoint, James goes rogue to try to find out what happened to an Iraqi boy he knew.  He leaves the comfort of his home base and goes deep into unfamiliar Iraqi territory—through busy markets and dark neighborhoods.  The camera takes us through this journey with the same disorienting dizziness that James is surely feeling.  Finally, he gets to the house he’s looking for and breaks in.  He goes into the kitchen and points his gun at an Iraqi man preparing dinner.  He asks the man if he speaks English.  The man affirms:  “English, French…”  We see the culture shock on James’s face.  He wasn’t expecting this—we weren’t expecting this.  The man introduces himself as a professor and invites James to sit, as he is a “guest.”  James can barely process the information.  In this instance, the otherness of the Iraqis becomes familiar to him.

Later, James arrives back at base only to be accosted by American soldiers.  They order him to put his hands in the air, ask him if he has a weapon, and assault him with physical force.  They don’t know who he is—he can be a hostile Iraqi for all they know.  James (as well as the audience) now experiences what the Iraqis have been experiencing throughout the entire film.  To his fellow soldiers, he has become the other.

Yes, James is changed by this incident.  Yes, his (and our) perception of the Iraqis has changed.  But he’s been changing since he arrived in Iraq.  Earlier, we see him on a phone call to his wife.  The camera shoots him silhouetted by the desert sunset.  His wife asks:  “Hello?”  James can’t even respond.  Lost in his shadow and the darkness of war, how can he possibly relate to her?  How can she possibly understand?

At another point in the movie, we actually see James at home in America.  He’s grocery shopping with his wife.  She asks him to pick out cereal.  A cereal aisle has never looked so foreboding on film.  The scene is shot to make the aisle look longer than it really is.  And we see James in a moment of pure existential angst, paralyzed by the plethora of choices.  Lucky Charms, Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs—the list goes on.  James craves a simpler life, free of having to make such decisions.  He craves war.

We then see James in his bombsuit, his eyes peering through a dirty face shield, echoing the closing scene of Lawrence of Arabia where we see T.E. Lawrence (another thrill seeker changed by the desert) through a dirtied windshield.  Like Lawrence, James will never truly leave the desert.  But Sanborn, his counterpoint, is a different story.  Toward the film’s end, his humanity shaken, Sanborn expresses his (and probably many other soldiers’) opinion of Iraq simply and succinctly:  “I hate this place.”

Sterritt is right in pointing out how important it is not to disregard the political complexity of America’s involvement in Iraq.  And yes—Middle East politics can be the subject of film and artistic scrutiny.  David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is probably the greatest example of a film that effortlessly balances character, narrative, and international politics.  And we need only look to 2005’s labyrinthine Syriana to see how a film can be constructed to mirror the complexities of the Middle East.  But a work of art should not be faulted for concerning itself with timeless, philosophical topics rather than the politics of the moment.  This brings us back to Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.  We can keep turning to these films partly because they are more about the nature and experience of war (as well as its psychological effects) than the politics that got America into Vietnam.  They touch on the politics, yes, but in ways that are not much different from the methods of The Hurt Locker.

In his essay, Sterritt argues that the The Hurt Locker operates under the premise “that war movies are built on physicality and violence, and thinking only slows down the action.”  I hope I have demonstrated that this is not at all the case.  The Hurt Locker truly is a film brimming with provocative ideas.  You just have to look over and beyond politics to see them.