I saw The Hurt Locker about three weeks ago, maybe a month, and it is still with me. This is a very well crafted film. Now, being a military/war movie buff – I have seen them all even the foreign ones and, unfortunately, a lot of the bad ones. My favorites are about the same as everyone else’s: Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, The Thin Red Line, Apocalypse Now, and Black Hawk Down. However, I loved Enemy at the Gates which illustrated the Soviet perspective of WWII (rare, I tell you!) and Three Kings. I left Saving Private Ryan off the list because it didn’t stand out to me, just the first scene, of course. It could have been all the hype that did the film in for me. Anyhoo, I love war movies for reaons unbeknownst to myself but here’s something cliché: ‘The war movie genre spans the full range of human emotion from the very worst to the very best.’ Perhaps, that is why they are so satisfying. It’s too bad war movies have not taught our elected officials more.
The Hurt Locker shows us the war experience from the perspective of the technicians of a bomb squad, a frequently overlooked component of our military organization, yet the singularly most important task outside of being a medic. It centers around a small three person team (*spoilers follow*) who loses their team leader in the first scene of the movie. He is then replaced by SSgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) to accompany Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) for the remaining days of their tour which are being counted down for the audience periodically throughout the film. Obviously, the objective for the remaining two guys is to stay alive and emerge unscathed. That simple objective becomes increasingly difficult as the nature of warfare has continued to change.
In the latter half of the 20th century and on starting with the Vietnam War, asymmetrical warfare has posed itself as a huge obstacle to the giant megapower of our (America’s) conventional military capabilities. While it is not ethical to lay waste to an entire forest (Vietnam) or blow a mountain off the face of the Earth (Afghanistan) it is not, strategically, an intelligent idea. However, this film focues on our current non-campaign in Iraq; however, the focus is on Baghdad providing the terrain challenge of a densely populated urban landscape not unlike Black Hawk Down in Mogadishu, Somalia. The problem that presents itself repeatedly for the soldiers and viewers alike is distinguishing foe from friend. There are moments where you want to yell at the soldiers and tell them to gun down the man with video camera, then a few more minutes pass and you start to question your instinct as to whether he’s making a youtube video or an actual threat. This happens over and over again. The camera zeroes in on a a cell phone, a wire, a person’s face and there’s a moment where the viewer is going through the decision-making process with the solider to investigate or walk away. Many of the Iraqi characters have dialogue, so they are not silent dehumanized enemies, but dynamic red-blooded humans like the viewer and the soldier. They are our allies at one point when James has to consult with some of the Iraqi police forces, they are innocent cogs in the fight exploited by the insurgents like the Father who is forced to wear a bomb vest, and there are children everywhere throughout the film running away or looking on out of simple curiosity. The viewer empathizes completely with the soldier understanding why he must suspect everyone and how important one’s judgement becomes. It’s terrifying. Especially, when the viewer realizes their instinct could be wrong. Many a time, I found myself looking at my friend in horror eyes wide – mouth open, shocked. The battles scenes are long and relentless. The viewer can feel what the sense of time does to a person in an environment as sandy, gritty, and hot as Iraq let alone wearing a kevlar vest or a bomb suit. For instance, there’s a moment where the soldiers: James, Sanborn, and Eldridge meet up with some British mercenaries in the desert (of course, they almost meet their maker when they first run into one another) and they find they are being ambushed from all sides. Ending up in some sort of sandy trench they manage to pick off a sniper rifle and Sanborn and James as his spotter are forced to wait out the other sniper across the desert. Not only is waiting grueling work, they’re in the desert with dwindling supplies for hydration. Not to mention, at this point they’re surrounded by several dead bodies – so the smell must be wonderful. Bigelow does a good job with the cinematography and really bringing home the difficulty of the conditions the soldiers are dealing with – leaving next to nothing to the imagination.
At this point, in the film there’s a tender moment between James and his outfit because interpersonal relations is a prominent theme in the film. Not only is conflict a big problem, harmony and trust is no guarantee either as seen in the first scene when Sgt. Thompson (the first leader) gets blown up. So, when the cowboy, James comes in and both Sanborn and Eldridge do not agree with his reckless ways one can imagine there is going to be a problem. James, Sanborn, and Eldridge represent the three archetypes along a spectrum of soldier types. On one extreme, we have James the daring, risky, seemingly “crazy” type who is the best at what he does – defying all the odds, Sanborn is in the middle, the smart, competent, capable soldier is who is good at his job but sees no reason for unnecessary risk, and Eldridge is our shell shocked, seen too much, might snap any minute soldier. These are archetypes seen in all military movies. James most reminded me of Tom Sizemore who plays almost the exact same type of character in Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down who stands straight up, never ducking, in the middle a firefight while everyone else is hiding behind corners and pillars, cowering behind humvees and tanks. And, somehow this type of character is rarely wounded, and never dies. He also reminded me of Sgt. Speirs from Band of Brothers who runs fearlessly through the middle of a battle with the Germans towards a tank and manages not to get shot, and he does this repeatedly – running through the most difficult and dangerous parts of the battle. Tall tales and legends surround these guys because they do the unthinkable, the impossible, but how? About 75% of the way through the movie, the viewer realizes this film is about that person – William James: the war junkie. This junkie, who happens to keep parts from all the bombs he’s disabled beneath his cot to study. That’s obsession, or it could be called commitment. Or, it could be heroic? Is insanity and an wavering sense of fearlessness and conviction a prerequisite to being a hero or a genius?
There is one particular scene that prompted a lengthy conversation between my friend and I as we debriefed afterwards. Sanborn and James are at the mirror in the bathroom and Sanborn decides to tell James about his concerns for he and Eldridge’s safety. But, then he devolves into calling him a honky tonk redneck or something to that effect, except that is assuredly what is on most viewers’ minds and he gives voice to that thought during the scene. However, what’s particularly interesting about the casting is that Sanborn is played by a Black actor, but there’s nothing particularly “Black” about his character – in fact, anyone could have played his character and said those same lines. An affluent Yalie (like the psychologist Cambridge) could have said the same thing to James if pushed to his limits and it would have come across with exactly the same meaning. But, what’s interesting is that it piqued my friend’s racial anxiety and he thought this was going to become a racial exchange, but it did not. But, the fact that it made the viewer go there to consider that is enough because at that moment, we are forced to realize that we identify with Sanborn, the Black character. Our sympathies lie with him, he’s the centrist character who embodies the most common type of soldier, the type of soldier we, the viewer, would most likely be. Because as any good filmmaker knows, no choice can go unconsidered – nothing appears on the screen by accident.