As a tonic to all the hoopla surrounding The Hurt Locker and its Oscar win as Best Picture, we’re reprinting BL writer Jay Rothermel’s provocative review of the film, originally published on August 14, 2009 on the blog Marxist Update.
* * *
“The great ignored question raised by events depicted in The Hurt Locker is simple: who makes the IEDs, and why? The bombs materialize and must be disarmed. A “hadji” with a cell phone may lurk among onlookers, ready to detonate the device, but we are given nothing but a sea of Iraqi faces to confront.”
The Hurt Locker is marketed as 2009’s Best Picture. Limited release and a blockbuster media campaign are creating an atmosphere of inevitability: This is the movie we must all see. Reviewers love a serious (i.e., responsible and “non-partisan”) war movie they can bloviate about, patting themselves and the movie’s producers on the back for tackling the Big Issues. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will take its own turn at the job in March 2010.
Producer-Director Kathryn Bigelow’s movie tells the story of a squad of U.S. Army specialists who disarm improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Baghdad. When the movie begins and Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner) joins the squad, they have 38 days to serve before the end of their one year rotation. Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are the other members of the squad.
Kathryn Bigelow has a reputation for introducing a little panache into her movies, so expectations for a combat movie like “The Hurt Locker” are high. In Near Dark (1987) she gave us some mercifully anti-Anne Rice vampires in the desert southwest. Blue Steel (1989) gave viewers the vicarious thrill of a bad end for notoriously hammy actor Ron Silver. Point Break (1991) was a surfing recapitulation of White Heat. K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) took the submarine genre to perversely quixotic heights.
The Hollywood combat movie is a genre notorious for hoary clichés. We all know them: at least one solider is on the verge of going home. Another loves war a little too much. A third, from the rear echelon, wants to see some real action. Around camp a G.I. might befriend a local boy, a Samuel Fuller war orphan with a name like Short Round. If Fuller or Robert Aldrich made the movie, most of the officers would be useless tyros or dangerous martinets. The Black soldier would come off hard-as-nails, but reveal himself late in the movie as the heart of the unit. The youngest baby-faced grunt would have a meltdown. There would be some lighter escapades, too, to break-up the bigger combat scenes: men carousing and “getting down” to the soundtrack’s rock and roll music.
The Hurt Locker is sold as a vigorously up-to-date hand-held no-stars kitchen-sink realist combat movie with none of these trite and ancient plot points. On this the TV commercials, stellar reviews, and print ads all agree. But the movie has them. Indeed, it seems like an encyclopedia of such clichés. So many are used that the viewer starts to feel like the victim of a practical joke, lured to the theater with the old bait-and-switch.
The clichés would not be such a bitter surprise if The Hurt Locker worked a little harder to disguise them. The much-touted scenes of Staff Sergeant James actually defusing IEDs take up only about 15 minutes of screen time, and are tossed-off with little respect for viewer interest in the work. James digs around the bombs, grapples with them, and pulls them apart as he tries to best their makers, but he might as well be changing a flat tire. We are not given any information on how these devices are created, or the nuts and bolts of how they work. Even the old UK TV show Danger: UXB did viewers that courtesy.
Much is made of G.I. hardships in The Hurt Locker. Their days are a kinetic nightmare of uncertainty. Iraqis they interact with are all referred to as “hadjis,” whose next cell phone call might detonate a bomb. Drunkenness, video games, and writhing in self-pity fill the non-working hours. The only thing more grinding and disturbing than service in Iraq is life at home upon return. Spouses just don’t understand. After a trip to a grocery store, Staff Sergeant James finds he cannot wait to volunteer for another tour.
A Caricature of an Important Film
The Hurt Locker begins with a quotation from journalist Chris Hedges to the effect that “war is an addiction.” Deciding whether this is the height of disingenuousness or the actual low level of liberal political insight of the movie’s producers must be left to each viewer. Perhaps it was a choice between the Hedges quote and George W. Bush on U.S. consumer addiction to “foreign oil.”
The Hurt Locker wants to unite compelling story and compelling story-telling. Contention with a movie like The Wages of Fear (1953), dramatizing the perils and costs of going to work, was not out of the question. But Bigelow surrenders early and often to episodes that ape verisimilitude but kill momentum. One endless chunk of the movie, where our squad and a group of sociable Blackwater-style contractors are pinned-down by a sniper, defuses most hard-won early tension and offers no better insights than the scenes following it.
The great ignored question raised by events depicted in The Hurt Locker is simple: who makes the IEDs, and why? The bombs materialize and must be disarmed. A “hadji” with a cell phone may lurk among onlookers, ready to detonate the device, but we are given nothing but a sea of Iraqi faces to confront. Even a movie like The Kingdom (2007) had the courtesy to sketch a rationale for its bombers. Bigelow’s movie flies from such questions out of weakness, not strength. Such dishonesty, even more than dramaturgical laziness, sinks the enterprise.