Reporting and Deciding
A review of The Hurt Locker (produced by First Light Production and Kingsgate Films; directed by Kathryn Bigelow; screenplay by Mark Boal; distributed by Summit Entertainment).
At last we have a movie that makes us feel the full obscenity of the Iraq war. Other films have been well intentioned but have either given in to the temptation to preach (Lions for Lambs) or taken aim at the wrong targets (In the Valley of Elah and Redacted). The Hurt Locker takes an entirely different tack. Putting aside sermons and accusations—well aimed or not—it plunges us into the war with all the fervor of an obsessed documentarian and lets events speak for themselves. It does what FOX News pretends to do: It reports and lets us decide. Only the title expresses a political position, and it’s quite indirect at that, since the term hurt locker is never spoken in the film. It’s a slang expression, meaning to put someone in a painful situation from which there’s no immediate escape. “If you don’t stop harassing me, I’m going to put you in the hurt locker.” It serves director Kathryn Bigelow’s purpose perfectly. By pursuing our gratuitous Middle East adventure, she suggests, we have allowed ourselves to be put in a hurt locker, and now we’re stuck there.
I use the first-person plural we, but that’s only to say that we have all been implicated in this war, not that we’ve all shared equally in its hurt. Still, most of us have at the very least experienced the anxiety of knowing young people who have gone to Iraq. They’re the ones, of course, who have really been slammed into this locker. Bigelow doesn’t bother to say why they have been put there. Her film has no big revelatory declamations, no angry denunciations of political deceit. All of that goes unspoken. Maybe she thinks that, if we can’t crack the locker’s combination of shameless mendacity and scurrilous manipulation perpetrated by our domestic living-room warriors, we deserve to stay locked up a while longer.
Bigelow is known for her well-made but ditzy action adventures, including Point Break. But here she’s put aside cheesiness and chosen to work with dedicated journalist Mark Boal, who had joined a group of exceptional young soldiers on their Baghdad missions in 2004. These were members of the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), tasked with disarming roadside bombs or, as the Army has it, IEDs—Improvised Explosive Devices. (The Army is nothing if not dispassionately Latinate and antiseptically acronymic in its refusal to say directly what’s at issue.) These men are supposed to find and defuse bombs hidden in the dirt roads, in abandoned cars, under piles of seemingly stray litter, and sometimes sewn into the body cavities of the dead, bombs set to be detonated by timers, cellphones, tripwires, or the simple bad luck of a thoughtless misstep. Protect the innocent from the fanatically demented—that’s what the EOD is supposed to do on its IED hunts.
By focusing on a team of three EOD volunteers, Bigelow and Boal have been able to bring the war into pointed focus. From the moment we invaded, all of Iraq became one big IED, with an ever renewable charge. It’s blown up again and again despite our troops’ best efforts to defuse it. It’s killed 4,300 Americans, and no one knows how many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. And the real hell of it is that many Iraqis seem to accept the situation. They live in a culture that continues to think it honorable to kill over a dispute regarding the caliphate succession dating to Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632. When Muslims haven’t been enthusiastically enslaving and slaughtering Jews and Christians, they have followed the commands of their religion of peace and thoroughly enjoyed putting one another, Shia and Sunni, to the sword. Or IED. And now because of the historical illiteracy of the Bush administration, we have deployed innocent young Americans to protect these people from their own imbecilic ferocity. Furthermore, even as our troops go about their work, they’re being targeted by the people they’re trying to save. Hurt lockers don’t come more painful than this.
Coming abruptly into the war in media res, Bigelow’s camera introduces us to the EOD squad patrolling Baghdad’s shattered streets. There’s Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), Sp. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), and their new leader, SSgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) who has come to replace the squad’s late leader, a casualty of an IED that went off before he could get away from it. (All the actors are relatively unknown, which helps them be all the more convincing. It doesn’t hurt either that each is quite talented, especially Renner, who seems to have been born for his role.) James is the kind of soldier that commanders love and colleagues loathe. He’s utterly fearless in the execution of his job. He’s done it so often—Boal has reported that EOD squads defuse ten to twelve bombs per day—that he’s become recklessly self-assured. There’s no bomb he won’t approach, no tangle of detonator wires he won’t pick apart. While the others maintain anxious surveillance, he goes about his precarious work with a big can-do American smile. He’s undoubtedly skilful and has the aplomb to think clearly under enormous pressure. What’s more, he thoroughly enjoys tinkering with the bombs as if they were particularly ingenious puzzles. But his men know that the only reason he’s still breathing is his seemingly inexhaustible fund of dumb luck. Coming upon a car laden with hundreds of pounds of explosives wired to two detonators, a decoy and the real thing, he takes off his padded protective gear. “If I’m going to die,” he quips, “I’m going to die comfortable.” Left unsaid but obvious is that there’s no amount of padding that could save him or his subordinates should the bomb go off. His men look at one another in dismay, the black Sanborn clearly thinking that this cracker is going to get them all killed. As Sanborn and Eldridge pull back to patrol the perimeter, James takes off the headphones that are supposed to keep him in contact with his men in case they need to warn him of an impending insurgent attack or a cellphone detonation. He wants to concentrate. Afterward, the thoroughly frazzled Sanborn takes the liberty of punching James in the jaw to make his displeasure known. James takes the insubordination in stride. Rather than bringing Sanborn up on charges, he satisfies himself later that night by engaging Sanborn in a stomach-punching contest, which he wins handily. James knows he’s a trial to others, but he’s not going to change. He keeps a box of detonators he’s taken from the bombs he’s defused to remind him of the many times he’s escaped death. There’s only one device from which he has not fully escaped: the legal document he also keeps in his box of switches and wires. It proclaims his divorce from the woman who nevertheless continues to live with him when he’s home, along with their infant son. This man, so intimate with death, has real difficulties with living.
By naming this cheerful bomb technician William James, Boal seems to be signaling that he’s the pragmatist’s pragmatist. He doesn’t consider why, only how. When Sanborn asks him why he keeps risking his life, James can only answer, “I don’t know; I don’t think about it.” His commanding officer loves his attitude. “You’re a wild man, soldier. A wild man,” he chortles. In response, James just beams with aw-shucks pride. This guy could hardly be more useful to those in charge. Draft-dodger Dick Cheney would love him to death, if not beyond.
The Hurt Locker doesn’t need to give us the big speech about the futility of war. Its details say it all. The film’s climax comes when the squad penetrates an insurgents’ lair. In the claustrophobic warren of rooms, there are shelves of chemicals and ordnance, a video camera on a tripod evidently to film suicide bombers professing the purity of their motives, and the corpse of an Iraqi boy whom James recognizes. He had been the feisty kid who was selling pirated DVDs at the American base, a 12-year-old with whom James occasionally kicked a soccer ball about. What he discovers next and what he does about it will stay with me for a bad long while.
As my friends and acquaintances will energetically attest, I am not a sentimental man. Nevertheless, there were moments in this film when my eyes smarted with sorrow and anger. I felt profoundly embarrassed to be an American whose taxes support this wretched enterprise. Bigelow moves us not with Hollywood heroics but with a series of quietly harrowing scenes that feel incontestably authentic. Her slow pacing and close observation of ordinary men performing extraordinarily painstaking operations couldn’t be more compelling. Even her explosions seem utterly convincing—not Hollywood fireballs but ground-shuddering dirt eruptions accompanied by slowly rippling car roofs that shatter and fling paint flecks into the hazy Iraq air. Filming in Jordan, she took the opportunity to hire actors from among the Iraqi refugees living there. This film is scrupulously faithful to things as they are. Even its depiction of American civilian life is impressive. There’s a simply rendered scene near the end in which James, on leave, takes his not-quite-ex-wife to a gargantuan supermarket with their baby. He wanders into the cereal aisle, where he stares dazedly at the improbable seven-foot-high wall of candy-colored boxed selections that runs from the front to the back of the store. It’s this wondrous American opulence for which he’s been fighting, a bright display of absolutely non-nutritious freedom of choice.
My only complaint about The Hurt Locker is that it hasn’t been put into wide release. But perhaps that’s coming. I think it could draw large audiences. As well as being a minutely executed autopsy of our misguided Iraq mission, it’s a riveting adventure of brave men putting their lives on the line for their country and one another. Everyone needs to see this movie.
I wonder if the usual blowhards—Bill O’Reilly and John Podhoretz and their kind—will try to kill Bigelow’s film, denouncing it as a bomb, their favorite trope when discussing all the other Iraq war movies that have incurred their shabbily scripted and perhaps well-paid displeasure. Or will they dare? Doing so this time might bring them too close to ordnance that is likely to explode in their comfortable, well-fed faces.
Recently, the New York Times ran a front-page story by Benedict Carey, recounting an incident in Mosul. An American patrol had come upon a parked car in the 120-degree heat. Two kindergarten-age boys were looking at the Americans through its back window. When one of the soldiers requested permission to give the boys some water, Sfc. Edward Tierney instinctively commanded his men to fall back. Seconds later the car exploded. Shrapnel hit the would-be Samaritan in the face, and shock waves knocked the rest to the ground. Fortunately, none of the soldiers died, and the Samaritan’s wounds were not that severe. The boys, however, were gone, almost surely unwitting martyrs to the cause of jihad. One can only imagine their adult handlers’ grief and anger. After all, they had failed to lure the ridiculously sentimental Americans into a fatal trap. Our leaders, thankfully, have no time for tears. They are too busy selling this war to the public as a peacekeeping necessity. Some peace.
This article first appeared in the September 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.