When Stanley Kubrick went to make his war masterpiece Full Metal Jacket in 1985, a friend reminded him that he already had a great war film, Paths of Glory, to his credit. Kubrick responded by saying that Paths of Glory was an anti-war film. He now wanted to make a film that examined the experience of war. That existed solely within its bounds and explored it as a phenomena.
The Hurt Locker is such a film. Here is a movie with no political agenda to push–just the heat and visceral energy of war itself. Since the second Iraq war broke out in 2003, there have been a number of Hollywood films that have addressed the conflict. Some have done it via the domestic approach (In the Valley of Elah and Grace Is Gone), examining the affect of the war on those at home. Others like Stop Loss have gone both ways, situating some of the action with the troops in Iraq but then locating most of the story back in the states, as the soldiers have to adjust to their everyday life.
Although these films are each intelligent in their own way, I don’t feel like I’ve learned much about the nature of the conflict itself through watching them. Maybe it is because of the existence of a political agenda in each of them, a willingness to trumpet an ideology rather than to understand war as a phenomenon. Not to lambast filmmakers who have anti-war points of view and wish to voice them, but it feels as if they leave the Iraq War itself behind when keeping the action of the story physically detached from it. Their perspectives reflect more on reasons for and consequences of the conflict rather than what the conflict itself might reveal to us.
The Hurt Locker is smart, bruising, uncompromising and as good a war film as I’ve seen. It takes place entirely in Iraq as the story follows a bomb disposal unit during their last 38 days in country before being shipped back to the states. We see them in their day to day grind of responding to bomb threats, carrying out orders, guarding each other against possible insurgents and facing death at every moment. Director Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t see these guys as figureheads for her own political musings, but real men meant to do difficult, life-threatening work. In focusing entirely on their experiences, she does the soldiers more credit than a more overtly anti-war film might.
The action centers mainly on the personalities of two men: the unit’s bomb disposal expert, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) and Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), the head of the unit’s support team that accompanies James on missions . James is compulsive, brazen, some would say reckless if it weren’t for his disarming talent at doing his job. Sanborn is more measured, careful, interested in doing things by the book. James drives him crazy. During one mission, he disrobes from his protective gear before confronting a bomb, saying “If I die I want to die comfortable.” He throws his headset off to avoid distraction during one operation, severing communication with the rest of the team. And there are other times, after the area has been cleared and the team can legitimately leave the threat for another unit, that James refuses to let his task go.
Why does he do these things? The film begins with a quote from New York Times journalist Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent, stating “war is a drug.” It’s not that simple, but it is a good starting point. Indeed, James seems to be intoxicated by something when he faces down a bomb. It could be adrenaline. It could be a sense of competition within himself. It could be loyalty and consideration of the lives around him. And it could simply be that he has a job to do and no one does it with as much focus as he does. He has successfully dismantled 873 bombs. When asked the best way to do it, he responds “the way you don’t die.”
Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, as well as Jeremy Renner, do James credit by 1) not fully explaining him, and 2) not over-complicating him. He is, at his roots, a compassionate man. There are many scenes where he keeps running into a young Iraqi boy who is selling dvds. He buys a couple from him. He runs into him later and plays soccer with him. When another soldier gets jittery when the unit is under fire, he doesn’t bristle with fury but instead calms the soldier down. He reveals that he has a wife and a son at home. It is hard for his fellow soldiers to look at him with complete spite for his reckless behavior, considering he never lets them down when he confronts a bomb.
And yet there is a true violence to him as there is to each of these men. When we first meet him, he is isolated in his barracks, chain-smoking Marlboros, blasting death metal music and girating to its aggression. He keeps a box under his bed containing all of the detonators he has deactivated over the years, saying “everything in this box almost killed me. I think it’s interesting.” We see him confront an Iraqi driver with a bomb underneath his car in an early scene. He holds a gun on him and tells him to back up. The man hesitates. James fires shots all around him and puts the gun to his temple and tells him to move or he will shoot. We don’t doubt for a second that he will.
Do we ultimately understand James? Not fully, nor are we really supposed to. What we suspect all along, and what is ultimately revealed to be true, is that he was made to be in a state of permanant chaos. Leaving makes him uneasy. There is a great shot (slight spoiler ahead) toward the end of the film where he is in a supermarket and must to go to fetch a box of cereal. Standing there, facing the endless number of different brands, he is paralyzed. There’s not red or green wire to pull. I was reminded of a great line from Apocalypse Now where Willard says “when I was there all I wanted was to be out, and once I was out, all I could think about was getting back into the jungle.”
In observing this extremely complex man, we learn everything and nothing about the place he exists in. It is dangerous, it requires a certain behavior, and men like James who have the necessary elements of self-discipline and violence ultimately thrive. The film recognizes that these elements thrive in any armed conflict, not just this one, and that recognition helps it achieve a universal quality. It is about how men act in dangerous situations, not the circumstances that put them there, and in that, it reveals its true power.
Movies about the Iraq war have not done well. I can think of no true awards horse or box office giant to stand out from the pack in the years since the war started. It was surprising to me that The Hurt Locker didn’t get a wider release. It works well as counter-programming in a summer full of shapeshifting robots and gay Austrian talk show hosts. It also works wonderfully as a suspense thriller with out degenerating into silly action movie fare. I can see the box office stigma attached to Iraq films hurting it, and it really is saddening.
I don’t know if The Hurt Locker helps us understand Iraq as much as it tries to teach us something about war in general. It also doesn’t want to be another bullet point in a political argument; there is no rhetoric to this film, just quiet observation and respect for those who go to war and particulary those who can’t resist the allure of pure chaos. It’s an important film, one that our fallen Kubrick, in all his infinite wisdom, would have respected.