The Hurt Locker: Military Propaganda or Just A Film About the Effects of War?
[Spolier Alert: I’m going to discuss some of the specifics of The Hurt Locker below, so if you want to see it clean, feel free to skip out on this post]
Yesterday, I saw The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s intense film that follows a team of three U.S. Army soldiers who participate in “explosive ordnance disposal” (military parlance for “bomb removal”), set in 2004 in Iraq. I thought it was one of the better movies I’ve seen in some time and the performances of Jeremy Renner, as the swaggering bomb technician Will James, and Anthony Mackie, as the play it by the book Sgt. JT Sanborn, were both nuanced and (mostly believable). It’s a movie that treats the characters as real people going through horrific things and examines the ways they attempt to live with the things they’ve seen and done. It was, to me, a rather apolitical film, and for that reason, I think it might get more traction with the public than some of the other Iraq-inspired war movies.
That’s why I really disagree with Tara McKelvey’s take on the movie, laid out in a web essay over at The American Prospect. She says it’s, “…is one of the most effective recruiting vehicles for the U.S. Army that I have seen.” A statement like that makes me wonder if we were watching the same film.
The Hurt Locker sets itself up as am anti-war film. It opens with a quote, “War is a drug,” from Chris Hedges, a Nation Institute senior fellow and author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning. Yet for more than two hours, the film imbues Baghdad’s combat zone with excitement and drama. In one scene, a bomb-defuser, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), searches for a detonator in a car loaded with explosives, and later he tries to save an unfortunate Iraqi man who has been forcibly strapped with homemade bombs. The tense moments are set to creepily compelling music selected by composers Marco Beltrami (he did the scores for the Scream series) and Buck Sanders, and the cinematography captures the beauty that is found in the desert landscape and even in the casing of a bullet. It is easy to understand why the soldier, William James, would take so much pleasure in his work as a daredevil bomb-defuser in Iraq, and find so little to be happy about in the difficult, messy world of America when he comes home.
First, I’d take exception to the assertion that the movie “sets itself up as an anti-war film”. That Hedges’ book is anti-war doesn’t mean the movie must be for quoting it and I’d argue that it’s neither pro nor anti-war; rather, it simply attempts to give us a glimpse into how war works on a man.
I think it’s important to note that Hedges’ quote applies directly to Will James, but not at all to his fellow team members Sgt. Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge (played by Brian Geraghty). Though his reasons for being a bomb technician are never clearly articulated, it’s clear that James is a thrill seeker who only feels at home in the chaos of war. Like junkies of the narcotic sort, he comes alive when he’s getting his war “hit”, which just happens to involve dismantling weapons designed to kill him and his fellow soldiers. Diffusing bombs seems to be his raison d’etre and for him, war is exciting. Roger Ebert writes in his strong review of the movie that:
When it’s over, nothing has been said in so many words, but we have a pretty clear idea of why James needs to defuse bombs. I’m going to risk putting it this way: (1) bombs need to be defused; (2) nobody does it better than James; (3) he knows exactly how good he is, and (4) when he’s at work, an intensity of focus and exhilaration consumes him, and he’s in that heedless zone when an artist loses track of self and time.
Will is like every kind of brazen, reckless person you’ve ever met (there’s a little bit of Martin Riggs in him), with the exception that he does reflect, from time to time, on how his actions affect those around him. He doesn’t change, mind you, but we get the impression that he understands everyone else isn’t like him. It’s true, as McKelvey says, that James is in low spirits when back in the states. He’s overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cereal in the supermarket and can’t even make small talk with his ex-wife as they prepare dinner without referring back to events in Iraq, or play with his small child without rambling off the various ways life can, and will, disillusion you. In Iraq, he has a clear purpose whereas that’s not the case at home.
Which leads us to the other team members, Sanborn and Eldridge. The former is presented as an ideal solider: he respects protocol and is cool under fire. He seems to believe that if he follows his training, he’ll be fine. But as time wears on, Sanborn begins to question the point of what they do, saying at one point that if he were to die, nobody but his parents would give a shit (and he says they don’t count, because they have to care). Over the course of the film, he goes from not wanting to have a kid with his girlfriend to being obsessed with the idea of having a son. He’s worn down by the conflict and longs for something simpler.
Eldridge, on the other hand is, frankly, a scared kid. He’s indecisive and fatalistic, certain that he’s going to meet his maker the next time he heads out on a mission. The one time he indulges his inner Will Kelly by charging off into the darkness to track down insurgents in the aftermath of a suspected suicide bombing in the Green Zone, he’s temporarily captured and ends up being shot in the leg during his rescue. Eldridge’s last interaction with Kelly is a profanity laden tirade that directly implicates Will’s cowboy tendencies for shattering Owen’s leg in nine places.
McKevey goes on:
In general, though, you feel empathy for the soldiers when they shoot. And in this way, the full impact of the Iraq war — at least as it was fought in 2004 — becomes clear: American soldiers shot at Iraqi civilians even when, for example, they just happened to be holding a cell phone and standing near an IED, as Colin H. Kahl, a military analyst and Obama administration official, wrote in International Security. Even more chillingly, as Kahl explained, a U.S. commander once ordered that all middle-aged Iraqi men in a certain area could be shot.
I think the movie goes to great lengths to show just how murky these life and death decisions must be for our troops. Is that guy with the video camera on the roof looking directly at me just curious or is hoping to post my death to a Jihadi website on YouTube? Do we shoot the cab driver who just blew threw our roadblock? While I might be able to empathize with the soldiers agonizing choices, watching this film never made me feel like going out to enlist. In fact, it drove home the arbitrariness of life (an issue Eldridge grapples with) and who, besides people like Will James, would want to have to make those judgments?