Lost in the Movies: The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker

This is the first entry in my renewed Best of the 21st Century series. It is cross-posted at Wonders in the Dark; the rest of the series will unfold exclusively on that site.

Two pictures to sum up a decade. One, a man encased in defensive armour, surrounded by explosive canisters. He's a stranger in a foreign land, an embattled American, homemade bombs weaving a spiderweb in the desert sands beneath his feet. The devices are all aimed in his direction like gigantic bullets, together forming a silent threat simmering just underneath the surface. Two, a man in a cavernous, overwhelming, colorful yet utterly sterile supermarket, faced down by hundreds upon hundreds of cardboard boxes, each containing processed and mass-produced snacks. More significant than the contents is the packaging - this is nutrition second, consumption first, and an empty, dissatisfying consumption at that. The bombs are existential threats; the boxes are not, and yet somehow their spiritual threat seems deeper. As Jason Bellamy astutely notes (in an observation which inspired the pictures and paragraph which open this piece), "In staring at all the cereal boxes on the shelf, he is presented with a multitude of choices, just as when he's disarming a bomb, but his choices don't mean anything. There's no 'wrong' choice. It's a reminder of how he misses the rush of duty, when every decision has a potentially life-altering consequence."

Pick your poison. Sgt. William James has certainly picked his.

The Hurt Locker stands, solid and rather lonesome, at the end of the zeroes casting a glance over its shoulder, taking in where we've been. Locker may very well receive the film industry's top award, a recognition not only of this fine film's achievement but also of its significance: here's an Iraq War film that was a success, that was critically acclaimed, that in this limited sense fulfilled director Kathryn Bigelow's rather head-scratching claim that the movie can offer "closure" for the conflict. It can't do that, but it can offer closure (or, perhaps, a fresh beginning) in the ongoing cultural attempt to grapple with the meaning of the Bush era. By eschewing grand statements, The Hurt Locker hints at essential truths about a troubled time, one in which a lingering sense of unfulfilled duty and potential nagged at the wider populace.

We don't meet Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner, in a truly impressive performance) right away. In a desire to subvert audience expectations from the get-go (and if that's not warning enough, the spoiler-weary are advised to flee the scene), writer Mark Boal introduces us to the standard three-person EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit on the ground in Iraq: the solid and responsible Sgt. JT Sanborne (Anthony Mackie), the youthful, occasionally panicky Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), and the team leader Staff Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce). Thompson is the kind of guy who would display a comfortable, good-humored ease, a quintessence of leadership, plunked down into the most hostile environment in the world - which is not far from the truth. He's an anchor for both his men and the audience, which is why Boal dispatches him within five minutes. Thompson is the victim of a secondary bomb, planted specifically to take out any personnel attracted by the first, decoy explosive, triggered by a cell-phone wielding figure in a butchershop.

Thompson's replacement is Sgt. James, but at first neither we nor the men under his command know what to make of him. Presented first in a dark room, listening to thundering hard rock as he pensively and intensely smokes a butt, the new team leader does not seem to be part of any "team" and has a funny notion of "leadership." "You'll get it," James arrogantly informs Sanborne at one point, after the experienced sergeant accosts the new leader for taking unnecessary risks in their first mission. (James insists on defusing the bomb personally, launches a cloud of decoy smoke and pulls a gun on a cab driver, staring the Iraqi down until he backs off and is whisked away by soldiers - "If he wasn't an insurgent before, he is now," James drily observes.) Sanborne never really does get it - at one point he half-jokingly humors the notion of an "accidental" detonation taking the hotshot cowboy off their hands. Yet James is very, very good at his job - and while defusing bombs is his specialty, and his passion, he's a handy spotman to Sanborne's sniper during a desert ambush, in the film's best sequence.

Close as the two men will grow, Sanborne remains perpetually perplexed by James' gung-ho risk-taking - a trait which is demonstrated repeatedly. The film is composed of about eight or nine missions, of such intensity that they will inevitably draw the participants together, should they manage to survive. A single roadside IED leads to a daisy-chain cluster of deadly explosives; a car weighed down with bombs causes James to cast aside his protective suit and headset ("If I'm going to die, I want to be comfortable"); an accidental rendezvous with British mercenaries turns into a bloodbath and slow, meticulous shootout; the discovery of a little boy's mutilated "body bomb" spurs a misguided revenge mission deep into a night-cloaked Baghdad neighborhood. In almost every case, there's a fine line between James' ability to extricate himself and his men from dangerous situations and his exacerbation of those very situations with forthright recklessness.

So when Sanborne finally expresses his incomprehension, James muses, "I don't know. Do you know why I am the way I am?" The question sounds rhetorical, but it is not. Finally Sanborne shakes his head and responds, "No. I don't." Then we enter that supermarket, cutting adroitly from a bevy of angry children chasing a humvee to a shopping cart coasting down the aisle - an edit as jarring in its own way as the leap from that bone to the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In a scene praised by just about everyone who's seen the movie, particularly veterans, James feels completely displaced in this once familiar location, and just like that, indeed just as he said we eventually would, we "get" it. James' ensuing speech, delivered to his infant son who can only coo in enthusiastic incomprehension, runs the risk of being too obvious yet somehow it resonates powerfully. Admiring his child's ability to be delighted by something as simple as a jack-in-the-box, James warns the baby that as he grows up, he'll begin to love fewer and fewer things. Maybe just one or two. "With me," the melancholy soldier muses, "I think it might just be one."

Cue the adrenaline-fueled conclusion: James' triumphant return to Iraqi soil on another deployment - ambiguous because of what came before, but superficially thrilling and enticing. "War is a drug," the opening caption informs us, but better yet is the title of the Chris Hedges book from which this quote is taken: "War is a force that gives us meaning." To the extent that The Hurt Locker could be construed as openly political, its accusing finger is pointed not so much at war or the military, as at a society whose blandness and disengagement from contemporary challenges fuel the desire for some, any sort of outlet. Even this reading is implicit rather than overt; but the film does contain some more passive ideological threads too. Once the film entered the controversy-laden award season, the film's generally blemish-free press gave way to doubts from several, often conflicting, directions.

Before we meet James or even his predecessor in the EOD unit, we are introduced to Iraq. "Introduced" may be a misleading word, implying familiarity: what we see is resolutely alien, a juxtaposition of traditional Middle Eastern garb and remote-controlled robots wheeling down crowded streets. The Americans, when finally presented, provide a relief, a source of identification for the viewers (of the Iraqis we mostly see feet and passing figures; we're unable to get a hold on anything relatable). From then on, the Iraqis that hover on the film's periphery are vaguely threatening figures - the movie must strike a balance, representing the soldiers' often embattled point of view without turning the Iraqis into the cartoonish evil "enemy."

The Hurt Locker achieves this remarkably well, impersonalizing but never dehumanizing the local population. In the marvellous 2006 documentary Iraq in Fragments, the American presence was a vaguely ominous, intangible reality; the figures in helmets and dark shades provided an overarching presence before which the central Iraqi figures scurried around for survival. The Hurt Locker takes the opposite perspective. While we never doubt the authenticity of the Iraqis' emotions and motivations, we never see what they actually are. There's a human reality there, but it remains resolutely unreachable. This has troubled those who want an Iraq movie to take in the whole picture; a criticism which has admittedly been limited - most reviewers, liberal or otherwise, celebrated what they saw as the movie's apolitical hardheadedness (or even projected an antiwar message onto it). Still, it has grown louder as Hurt Locker competes in the Oscars sweepstakes against a film that openly empathizes with an anti-occupation insurgency, however fantastical (Avatar is, incidentally, directed by Bigelow's ex-hubby James Cameron). And it's worth grappling with directly; how important is it for Hurt Locker to represent the Iraqi point of view in the war?

To my eyes, Hurt Locker delivers what Platoon did twenty years ago: whereas Oliver Stone provided a grunt's eye view of that draft army, Bigelow and Boal offer up a personalized perspective on a professional volunteer force. Of course Stone, for all his dramatic liberties, was himself a Vietnam vet, and this leads us to another criticism lobbed at the film: that it fundamentally misunderstands the U.S. soldier, and particularly the EOD bomb-techs. Criticisms of minor or even major factual inaccuracies are largely beside the point. More pertinent is the general drift of these (again, minority, though relevant) critiques: that the movie transforms professionals into reckless daredevils.

Yet hardly anyone has discussed the film's relationship to its indirect source: Mark Boal's 2005 Playboy article "The Man in the Bomb Suit." Before tackling The Hurt Locker, Boal had already adapted an earlier Playboy article, "Death and Dishonor", into the Paul Haggis-helmed screenplay In the Valley of Elah. Though names were changed and characters added in the Elah adaptation, the central events of the story remained fundamentally the same. This time, Boal creates an entirely fictional story from a grab-bag of real events, moulding it around a character obviously inspired by Staff Sergeant Jeffrey Sarver, an eccentric but extraordinarily accomplished EOD team leader, with whom the journalist was embedded in 2004. The article is an excellent read (and Boal himself is, incidentally, a lively interview subject) - at once more real and more moving than the resultant film, which is not to say it's better, just different.

Still, reading about Sarver, there can be little doubt that Boal transformed the real-life figure, a complex man with an erratic home life but a flawless job performance, into an at once more sharply defined and morally ambiguous film hero. Onscreen, James' bomb-defusing skills are never in question but his leadership seems lacking. Consistently placing his men in harm's way, displaying poor judgement on repeated occasions, breaking rules and regulations left and right, James' competence does not necessarily entail effectiveness.

Ultimately, it is difficult to weigh the good (defused bombs, though it's implied the robot could have taken care of some of them) against the bad (a man down, a death made possible by James' lingering on the scene, a home invasion that could have resulted in something far worse for both parties). James' one attempt to do an unmitigated good deed - stripping an Iraqi of an explosive vest he's been forced into - is rendered inert when the timing device runs out and the various locks prove insurmountable. This final episode only adds to the overarching impression of futility, a futility whose allegorical implications seem clear.

The titular "hurt locker" by the way, is never mentioned in the movie. If it's there it's buried too deeply, tucked away like one of those bombs Sgt. James retrieves from their sandy cover. Boal's original piece ends with Sarver bursting into tears, weeping in a confused outpouring of grief, longing, and remorse, torn between responsibilities he knows he can't keep and the lure of a necessary and challenging job he loves, but whose draw leaves him uncertain. James' pain is muted, twisted - his battle is not between a sadness and a joy but between feeling and not-feeling. The antitheses of "the things you love" are not "the things you hate" but the things you can't feel at all.

In a drawer under his bed in the barracks, Sgt. James keeps IED pieces as souvenirs - "these are the things that almost killed me," he declares proudly. The Hurt Locker is the portrait of a man, and a unique one - hardly universal in his particulars. Yet as painters once began to include landscapes in the backgrounds of their historical scenes, subtly exploring the world around them under the guise of a focused gaze, so we can begin to trace the contours of our one-time zeitgeist between the glossy endless corridors of the supermarket and the windblown sunstruck streets of Baghdad. Our own hurt locker has begun to be cracked open.

Additional comments on "Wonders in the Dark"

This review was originally cross-published on the other Lost in the Movies site and Wonders in the Dark (see above).


Just Another Film Buff said...

Wow. MovieMan, This is a stupendous summation and review of THL. Such a vast scope. Wonderful that you trace the film out from Boal's article onwards. And love the opening and closing sections.

I, for one, thought the film was openly anti-war. James straying into the doctor's house could well stand for USA in Iraq. And it was also interesting that Bigelow "kills" all the stars in teh film perhaps suggesting that there are no stars in a war. James walking down the cluttered streets of Bhagdad itself achieves a grace of a gladiator entering an arena.

But what's with the tasteless slo-mo scenes? I thought they were utterly camp. And sometimes, the missions themselves felt a bit redundant, conforming to the genre. And the final sequences, although somewhat subtle, seem instructive and designed to evoke the required reaction. I thought it was nevertheless a gritty genre film - nothing more, nothing less.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, JAFB. I definitely would not call the film "openly" anti-war though I think beneath the surface it had that inclination. When those subtexts became more overt, I felt the film suffered for it. The home invasion in particular felt out-of-place - it was so blatantly un-realistic and had too many metaphorical overtones. And when you have to make a point about the ineffectiveness of the military by changing the facts (i.e. that James would be let back onto the base with a little shouting and some manhandling), you're kind of defeating the purpose I think.

I think the first few missions might have been a bit redundant (the presumption being, probably, that we were just getting used to them at that point) but after that they seemed reasonably varied. I thought the movie got stronger and more absorbing as it went along. The sniper sequence belongs in the fine tradition of taut wartime set-pieces (it reminded me of the scene in the wrecked church with Robert Mitchum in The Story of G.I. Joe).

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