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The Hurt Locker ****½

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The Hurt LockerThe Hurt Locker is apparently military slang for the contemporary phenomenal equivalent of shell shock (physical trauma associated with repeated aural exposure to explosions), the locker itself being that envelope of time where the force moving through air affords a compressed silence to precede obscene rupture. A fitting title for one of the greatest films set at war – an easy peer to Full Metal Jacket and The Thin Red Line. It describes the experiences of a bomb-disposal unit in Baghdad, approaching the end of their current deployment; its world represents the middle stages of American deployment in Iraq.

As a war film in both form and substance, it has an exclusively masculine superficial appeal, but as a study of masculinity – of war and trauma (of division) – it is of transgender concern. To suggest that it is less interesting for women is both to assign gender and to claim women are insubstantial and superficial – while it may have more appeal to the baser instincts of male audiences (much as the certain chick flicks appeal to those of female audiences) it has substance that goes beyond genre target markets.

The Hurt Locker is neither political nor judgmental. As its writer (former embedded journalist Mark Boal) puts it, “There’s no politics in the trenches”. The Iraq War itself, in cause, machination and ideological construction, is absent (although if we must hunt for an ideological statement, it might be found hidden in its apparent opposite, that very absence: selective omissions and silences often designate incipient ideological positions). This is not the major concern of the film, in any case. The experiences that war generates are immanent, discrete and total. Star female action director Kathryn Bigelow brings us into intimate contact with the lived experience, through astonishing formal mastery. She folds together beautiful slow motion ultra-high definition shots, commanding fixed camera set-pieces and documentary format footage, somehow achieving an aesthetically satisfying realism. Scenes and sequences are choreographed to perfect execution – consider the marvelous co-ordination of the mid-point desert firefight (in its Western peyote-surrealism). The Hurt Locker is intelligent and contemporary, yet it transcends its stylistic articulation.

The Hurt Locker 2Bigelow is supported by Boal’s finely tuned miniature plot structure, replete with interwoven subplots, meaningful character arcs (subtle set-ups and resonant pay-offs) and disorienting forces majeures – the ideal Hollywood formula. Each of the carefully differentiated bomb-disposal set-pieces move characters, incite subsequent events and trigger subplots. Between the plotting and tersely parsed dialogue (spoken as though by the reified male psyche), Boal’s script does a lot of philosophical work. But the rest is achieved in Bigelow’s articulation of phenomena, through their aesthetic and physiological impact. The Hurt Locker is terrifying and elating by turns.

The depiction of soldiery is not epic, heroic or chivalrous (in the conventional sense) – the characters are not free of cowardice (manifest in Owen Eldridge, played by Brian Geraghty) or cruelty (the capricious, racist Staff Sergeant William James, played magnificently by Jeremy Renner, who shone brightly in Neo Ned, amongst higher-profile work). Their demeanors suggest that they are far from incapable of vicious behaviour, and their unfamiliar faces ensures that we believe fatal consequences might result. The relationships they share are neither linear nor simplistic – as complicated and authentic individuals, they do not conform to conventional types or dynamics – instead, they explode off one another, despite gelling as best they can for a stretch of the film. This is all underscored by fractious subtextual racial and class tensions.

The Hurt Locker 3These men do have virtues though, which spring from deeply felt commitments – not commitment to their tasks or roles as combatants, or to their soldier comrades by virtue of honour. James’s cause supersedes his care for family not out of nobility – he is a deeply sophisticated, corrupt man who cares only for one thing – danger, the adrenaline rush, the war drug (if it is politically incorrect to explore this explicitly, Bigelow throws caution to the wind, quoting this premise before the opening credits roll). His addiction leads him to directly contravene virtues – execrably, he endangers the lives of his subordinates for this personal vice. It is purely co-incidental that his disposition is well suited to a key military role. So what emerges is Bigelow’s picture of an organisation (of war generally, the military, or the Iraq War in particular) which feeds on this peculiarly male brand of egotism, and is in turn fostered by the male instincts. Testosterone and adrenaline fuel the good soldier, but they also perpetuate the situation, and curtail circumspection. A good soldier in one respect will almost necessarily be bad in others. This is not the universal story of The Hurt Locker, but the most important one.

Alongside James is the responsible level-headed black officer, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), whose virtues make him the good father, as well as a good soldier – though for a different purpose, and not James’s. He comes to manifest the golden mean. Neither he nor James are psychopathic by any means – observe their experiences of the protracted sniper battle – exhausted and sickened by their obligation to stare at the corpses of their victims and enemies for a great span of time – both parch, retch, shake, in desperate need of the Capri Sun drinks they suck like plasma. They are not into killing and they are not without empathy. The problem is that one is a danger to his comrades – the other incapable of the courage required to defuse bombs.

The Hurt Locker 4In terms of courage, James is painted against Eldridge. He is not defined by cowardice, but embodies the everyman failing to cope with trauma. He might be well adjusted to civilian life, asking the right sorts of questions of the bloodshed, its insanity, its predication on a totally fatal environment. And he cannot absorb the death of his psychiatrist, an officer with whom he has been riffing throughout. James, in contrast, is adjusted to war, and incapable of civilian life. He couldn’t possible pick a breakfast cereal out of a supermarket aisle – he is a coper, not a thinker. And his courage is predicated on a recklessness not just with his comrades’ lives, but equally with his own.

Some audiences may find him wholly unempathetic as a result – what of his death, should it come? We nor he nor anyone else will care if James dies. But he won’t – this is not at issue in the film. Our tension derives from anxiety about the fate of the others – Bigelow makes it quite clear that absolutely anyone in the film might die. James’s courage puts them all in the line of fire, and he does so calmly. His courage consists in both the calm acceptance of death and a blinding lust for life (for his kicks) which together let him fly in the face of danger with the circumspection to survive. This is how Malick put the authenticity of courage to us in The Thin Red Line, and it is almost how it comes to us in The Hurt Locker – although calm certainly isn’t characteristic of the film. Its skin is tense.

The Hurt Locker 5Boal tries to make James more accessible and humane by a rather suspect device – connection with a young boy going by the name Beckham. Verisimilitude aside, I feel it is important – even if discovering his capacity for engagement with civilians, and the possibility of his fatherhood, is marginal to the film, there must be a compelling element of character progression – so James starts with the possibility of paternal virtue, with two major causes in his life, and finishes with, as he puts it himself, just one care. Coming to a truly horrific breaking point, he kills in himself that avenue for fulfillment (salvation), to sever his connection with people. This change is balanced by his subsequent disregard for the safety of his two comrades, and after ordering them to near death, he needs to wash the blood and guilt from his whole body (though the layers of this image go far deeper).

The film is clearly concerned with wartime vices more complex than mere bloodlust, guilt and anxiety. There are nuanced treatments of the call to kill and to save life, the germs of heroism and atrocity, the gender homogeneity, the ambivalence of command, and post-traumatic stress. The film is highly suspicious of combat – the mission and any kind of principles or rules are entirely absent. We see everything from beneath the skin of the soldiers’ experience, and are made explicitly aware of their agency and freedom (as they repeatedly call upon one another for permission to fire, to the inevitable response, “it’s your call”). It implores us to let our soldiers command respect, while suggesting just what damaged people they can become, what trauma they are subjected to, the sort of things we ask of them, and what we should hope them not to be.

The Hurt Locker 6As Staff Sergeant James returns from his tour to a brief spell of civilian life – a disjointed and revelatory passage – he cannot stomach the experience. David Cox describes this scene as a portrayal of mundane life lacking meaning in contrast to the “mythologised…nobility of soldiering“. Neither sides of this equation are the case. Civilian life lacks meaning for James because of how the world has become intelligible to him – because of what he values. This is not a universal statement by Bigelow or Boal. What they are saying is that this mode of being is impossible after adopting the life of war. In that sense, The Hurt Locker is fundamentally about boundaries (between worlds) – the borders of experience and comprehension (dividers between soldier and civilian, America and the rest, the war zone and lived space, transparent and dysfunctional environments; between occupier and occupied – man as citizen and homo sacer).

If The Hurt Locker has a politics, it resides in the gray area between these boundaries (between worlds) – in states of exception. This is Baghdad in the days of Green and Red Zones – before ‘troop surges’ and ‘people protection’ – all Iraqis become enemies, by virtue of their possible hostility, and their lack of status. Entering the Green Zone proves almost impossible, even for a ranking American like Sergeant James. Their experience of violence is part-time, all or nothing, behind their walls, armour and barriers. For the non-citizens beyond the barricades, it comes from all directions – jihadis seed discord through terror, and the coalition too, through collateral damage. In this context, the film’s ultimate symbol for the war is the roadside bomb itself – and therefore the ultimate signifier of the self-conceived American role is the disposal expert in his space-suit. For an illuminating discussion of these subtexts, and anxiety about the impossibility of healing this rift between worlds, see here.

The moral structure of the film surfaces in scenes such as when Sanborn and Eldridge consider a strategic course of action – executing James and making it look like an accident. They calculate the odds of success (and possible ramifications) with military dispassion – clearly well trained to make such grave decisions quickly and efficiently. Should they save theirs and possibly other lives, or let James continue with his egomaniacal risk-taking. It’s not that simple, though – as James points out to his necessarily disinterested wife, the army desperately needs more of his kind. The utilitarian side to Sanborn and Eldridge stays their hands. In The Hurt Locker, as in real life, soldiers are happier facing an enemy than IEDs. Even when face-to-face combat is as chilling and venomous as it is here, or when it is constantly a threat hidden amongst an inscrutable popular menace, it has better odds. Unfortunately, we don’t witness any of the alleged gentlemanly code that accompanies such violent altercations – but we get a strong sense of the glamour accorded to the bomb disposal expert (the lunatic few). There is no question of eliminating James – the top brass’s “Wild Man”.

I was perturbed to find that some members of the audience didn’t find The Hurt Locker immanent or fraught, and watched from a disengaged distance. Most critics seem to have had the experience I share, and here are some corroborating remarks:

The movie deals with the final 38 days of an infantry company’s tour of duty when they’re wondering who’ll make it to the end. And it sets out, by and large successfully, to show us and make us feel what it’s like to be in a war where anyone around you, male or female, old or young, may be planning your death and every step you take along the dusty road, or every kerb your vehicle touches, may trigger a device that will blow off your legs and possibly your head. I can’t think of a recent film, not even Oliver Stone’s Platoon, that has conveyed so vividly what it is to be a soldier today on a front line where there is no defined border, just a dangerous no-man’s-land…On top of that, it’s about a unit that is called in by fellow squaddies to do a job that terrifies them. The disposal expert must keep his hands from trembling as he finds those tricky wires and decides which one to sever. You watch this film with sweating palms, a mouth that makes your tongue feel like a slice of Parma ham left too long on the table and a sinking stomach.

Philip French, The Guardian

The Hurt Locker 7I certainly did. How about you? It didn’t seem to be the case for a lot of people in my cinema (including the vulgar pleb, mouth askew, fisting himself with popcorn whilst still mulling the last lot in bovine mastication). Is a voluntary effort to commit to the film required of its audience? In any case, it took little on my part to become absorbed in its work. Mulling it over, one of Bigelow’s symbol systems comes to mind – there are frequent close-ups of eyes (beneath protective visors, or blinking away sweat; parched in desert sand, behind a telescopic sight, or duplicated in mirror fragments). There is intent behind these addresses – perhaps a commentary on perspective, or the individual attunement involved in experience – a reminder that both sides of the divide, and each member of the audience (and each soldier on the ground) will be alert (or hyper-alert) to different aspects. As if to make such concerns concrete, the second act climax – a frantic encounter with an Iraqi suicide bomber – does give pause to consider if this man’s predicament is involuntary, or whether this is the imagined moment when the suicide bomber tries to back down. That conundrum evokes unexpected compassion, more so than it might were he an unambiguous victim. And the effect of this episode’s conclusion is bewildering, generating stunned disbelief, rather than incredulity – it is probable, inassimilable, authentic. We have the same experience as Eldridge, when he responds to the death of his psychiatrist – incongruity, discontinuity, disbelief. These are challenging scenes, which operate both on a textual level and as instruments of plot, character, excitement. Then there are scenes which are simply poetic – think on the sequence that surveys the aftermath of an oil-truck bombing (potent as any images of war in cinema, while putting mundane fare like Jarhead to shame). The Hurt Locker is an authentic film to which one can respond in many ways, but it is very difficult to fault.

The Hurt Locker, Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, Writ. Mark Boal, Star. Jeremy Renner, First Light, USA, 2008
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Written by James P. Campbell

05/09/2009 at 18:53

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