July 14, 2009

Taking It Home: The Hurt Locker

[A reminder: "Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I haphazardly share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's simply a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".]

I think it was during a marathon desert standoff between U.S. soldiers and Iraqi militants in Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker that I had a realization both horrifying and humbling: these guys are just actors. This is a set, and soon after this scene was filmed, Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie probably relaxed in cooled trailers on location in Jordan before eventually heading home to posh Los Angeles-area homes. There's nothing wrong with that, of course; it's how movies are made.

But as I've written ad nauseam here over the last couple of years, the unspoken truth of The Hurt Locker and every similar movie made recently is that there are a couple million Jeremy Renners and Anthony Mackies who aren't returning to posh Los Angeles-area homes. They're returning to our blocks, our apartment buildings, our families, our schools, our workplaces and our circles of friends.

Of the few veterans I know who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan (or even Vietnam, for that matter), none have engaged in conversation with me about their tours abroad. I can't blame them; after all, like the exaggeratedly naive army psychiatrist in The Hurt Locker, I wouldn't know the first thing about the pain of their experiences. My military service has been limited to obediently registering for the Selective Service System when I turned 18 and then, in the absence of a draft, steering far and clear of recruiting offices.

I'm too old now to be drafted even if the Congress and the President ever authorized one, but that's little comfort when I know that so many people around me are going to be dealing with PTSD and other physical and psychological wounds for the rest of their lives. That my future children and I will be paying for their lifelong medical care with our taxes may not be much of a sacrifice compared with what they've given for their beliefs (or if you like, "our country" and "my freedom"), but I feel like my continued efforts to bring this conversation to light might be productive in some way.

For example, I lamented on the 5 year anniversary of the war in Iraq that the 100+ movies to date had done nothing but further stereotypes. Three weeks later when I reviewed Stop-Loss, my #8 best movie of 2008, I called it "the first important movie about the war in Iraq, and the only one I can recommend that isn't a documentary...the first mainstream movie (The War Tapes from '06 is a similar doc) that may wake up the public and start a dialogue about the future."

It it didn't really happen then and it may not happen after The Hurt Locker, either, primarily because it's framed as a gripping thriller instead of a character drama. Not since United 93 has a film featured such unbearable suspense through scenes in which the resolution is already known, or at least easily foreseen. It's not that The Hurt Locker is predictable, but aside from two key scenes (the aforementioned desert shootout being one of them), you can see every explosion - or non-explosion - coming well enough in advance to feel some sense of security.
The story can't continue without the characters, after all, so they have to stay alive at least most of the way through.

As it is, staying alive seems to be the primary goal of all soldiers as they count down the days until their rotation is complete (the actual count on screen in The Hurt Locker is a little too convenient to the ending, in my opinion). Within this daily struggle, then, is when we really see the toll exacted on their minds - the constant paranoia, the distrust of anyone not wearing a uniform, the stamina required to remain mentally alive in a place surrounded by death.

These are the invisible scars they will bring home, and to the extent that we actually see how PTSD and war dependency develop (as opposed to Stop-Loss, in which we only witness the after effects), The Hurt Locker absolutely provides more insight than any other Iraq War film to date (again, other than The War Tapes, which if I haven't already made it abundantly clear is the best documentary about the war hands-down).
Much has been made about the "realism" portrayed in The Hurt Locker, but I think it's worth mentioning that the Army refused to support this movie "due to inaccurate depictions of soldiers". According to an article featuring interviews with actual EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) soldiers in Iraq who viewed the film, most of them appreciated the effort but made it clear that "it's definitely Hollywood". One of them complained that "the movie was a little skewed toward PTSD...it's not as prevalent as it is in this movie."

I find that hard to believe based on the number of news reports these days about suicide rates among veterans. If "war is a drug" (as presented by the quote that leads off The Hurt Locker), and these soldiers are coming home with raging addictions to said drug, exactly what are they going to do when it's no longer available and they can't get their fix? What kind of symptoms can we expect to see from this withdrawal? These are the questions that horrify me much more than any of the bombs, bullets, or blood on the screen in these war movies.

Veterans' issues aside, another point made by a soldier actually does support a suspicion I had about The Hurt Locker: "The way [James] was poking around and fooling with the IEDs without knowing what they were is extremely dangerous...I don't think someone like Staff Sgt. James would do well [in the field]." Phew. Although I was wracked with tension during most of the bomb defusing scenes, I couldn't believe that a soldier would really act as such a rebellious renegade and later on be commended on his actions by a commanding officer. I know there are some real heroes in our military ranks, but my hope would be that they are taking such insane risks only under duress, not as regular practice.

Speaking of regular practice, I greatly enjoyed how screenwriter Mark Boal (who also wrote 2007's simply decent In the Valley of Elah) turned war movie production on its head once again by only featuring three main characters in The Hurt Locker. A handful of other recent war movies (Three Kings, Jarhead, Rescue Dawn, Flags of Our Fathers, Miracle at St. Anna) have also narrowed their focus, and I greatly prefer it to the regular competition of "how many big name stars can you cast in one movie". Examples of this include but are not limited to: Platoon, Casualties of War, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Pearl Harbor, Windtalkers, When We Were Soldiers, and, if you like, even Tropic Thunder. In my opinion, a focus on fewer characters lends itself to much more interesting storytelling.

Finally, I find it curious that the three films I have discussed here as the best of the Iraq War bunch (The Hurt Locker, Stop-Loss, and The War Tapes) have two other interesting traits in common: a.) they don't feature a lot of explosions and shoot-outs, and b.) they are all directed by American women. Coincidence? Hmm...

What did you take home?


  1. Awesome post.

    I've wondered myself recently why it is that a few dozen major Iraq movies have hit screens, and so many of them seem to miss the mark. Perhaps it's harder to make a cinematic statement about a mission still in progress than one that's already in our rearview mirror?

    I'm right with you that the movie isn't perfect (the countdown bothered me too), but it really points an arrow at what sort of human being truly makes a good soldier.

    PS - Ever seen REDACTED? I'd be curious to know what you thought of that.

  2. Thanks, Hatter, for scrolling through my scattershotthought.

    Funny that you mention both the Iraq movies and Redacted, as I was just re-reading that "War In Iraq: 5 Years, 116 Movies" post, in which I theorize on why so many of them have been poorly received. I also called Redacted a "senseless provocation", though that was perhaps unfair since I hadn't (and still haven't) seen it. Along with Battle for Haditha it remains one of the only movies about the war I've deliberately skipped.

    Back to The Hurt Locker - good point about the makeup of a "good soldier". I think you see three great examples in these characters. James is the brave, sacrificial patriot; Sanborn is the measured, calm leader; and Eldridge is the sensitive, obedient servant. Put all three together and you have the prototypical G.I. Joe, I guess.

  3. Deborah ScrantonJuly 14, 2009 at 9:28 PM

    Thanks Daniel for the shout out on The War Tapes. To amplify the soldiers' perspective through their own eyes was always the most important (for me), especially as our society continues to have such a disconnect between those who know a soldier and those who don't.

  4. Deborah, thank you very much for taking a minute to comment here (I'm sorry it's not a review of your film, which was released before I began this blog; I've tried to make up for it!). What I appreciated most about The War Tapes was, along with the diversity of the three subjects you finally chose, the fact that you gave us a look at their lives before, during, and after their service. No other war documentary I have seen features this unique perspective.

    And of course, as you mention, there is no substitute for a soldier's first-hand experience, so putting the camera in their hands is the best possible alternative. I am one of the people you describe who do not include soldiers among my close friends and family, but thanks to your film I was able to see Stop-Loss and The Hurt Locker in a completely different light.

    Additionally, you can rest assured that The War Tapes exists as an essential historical record to inform future discussions about so many political and cultural aspects of this war. Thanks again, and I wish you the best of luck with any upcoming projects.

  5. Daniel - As you know, I'm also a big fan of The War Tapes, a film that didn't get as much attention as it deserved, I think, because of when it came out. the Hurt Locker is one I want to see, but am afraid of the handheld camerawork making me sick (I've been warned already). I prefer more intimate war movies as well, like The Big Red One, Johnny Got His Gun, and Overlord, that provide a personal impact. I think women relate to the human toll and wish to expose that, whereas there is still this macho aspect of war that appeals on a theoretical level to many men, particularly those who want to make action movies.

  6. Yeah, Marilyn, I remember discussing The War Tapes with you on that POV post. I'm not sure what the issue was with The War Tapes when it came out - effusively high reviews, yet almost no award consideration. I'd argue that it may not have been a matter of timing, as both My Country, My Country and Iraq in Fragments received Oscar nominations that year (both losing to An Inconvenient Truth).

    As far as the handheld goes, I've gotta say I hardly noticed it in The Hurt Locker. And I would add that if you could handle it in The War Tapes, this should be a breeze. Maybe...

    This is a really bizarre coincidence, but I happened to turn on TCM a little while ago, and what should be playing at this moment but Johnny Guy His Gun, immediately followed by Overlord. No joke. I won't be staying up through both, but from what I've seen of Johnny Got His Gun, your description is right on.

    Finally, your theory on gender difference in war movie sounds impossibly simple, but maybe that's all there is to it, in which case I obviously the next script is offered to Bigelow, Scranton, or Peirce instead of Michael Bay.

  7. How strange! Overlord is the better of the two. I've reviewed them both on my site.

    And I do think the gender difference is as simple as that. My review today talks about a mother whose son was murdered looking at her belly and commenting on the waste of bringing a life into the world only to see it end in misery.

  8. We are crossing mental paths, Marilyn. I was just kicking myself for missing the last online day for viewing "Beyond Hatred", and there you have a review. I'm assuming you saw it as it aired recently on PBS? If not, another strange coincidence.

    I have a lot of your material to catch up on and will add that to the list. As it is, July is shaping up to potentially be the lightest month for posts I've ever had here. But I'll get back to your place soon enough.

  9. I saw a notice on Facebook about the doc yesterday, and watched it last night on my computer. Since this is All French Film Week at FonF, it fit the theme beautifully and continues my exploration of forgiveness and the justice system. I'm really interested in finding a doc or drama about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Know any?

  10. I second Daniel's assurance about the shaky cam. It's been months since I've seen the movie, but I don't remember it being irritating.

    There's been some discussion lately about whether this film is really apolitical or not. I've used the word myself, though in reality I don't think it is apolitical. I think the marketers are wanting you to think that because they want people to see it, but it's a political film.

    I don't think it's about the current situation in Iraq per se, but it's about war in general and in showing the damaging psychological consequences on the brave people who fight it.

    Though it's anti-war, it's definitely pro soldier.

  11. Marilyn, I'm not sure if you missed In My Country starring Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche a few years back, but it was about exactly that subject and based on a true story. Unfortunately, I remember it being pretty bad.

    Although it doesn't appear to be about the reconciliation after war crimes but the prosecution of them, you might also want to check out this week's POV film, "The Reckoning". Take a look at my season preview for a description and link to it, where you can check TV listings. It might be playing online briefly as well. I missed it on Tuesday and hope to catch up with it soon.

    Well said, Craig. I also disagree with the theory that just because a movie doesn't actually "talk" about the war, it means it isn't political. I'd almost argue that more damning arguments can be made with movies like The Hurt Locker and the others Marilyn listed, as opposed to something hamhandedly (is that a word?) political like Lions for Lambs.

  12. Daniel - I did watch some of In My Country, but didn't like it and turned it off. But you have jogged a memory of a doc about it. God knows if I'll be able to track it down, but I would have expected a lot more to be coming out of S.A. by now. I'll have to talk to Nick Plowman about it. And, thanks for the nudge about "The Reckoning." I always read your season previews, but my mind is like a steel sieve these days.

  13. No surprise that you didn't make it through In My Country. It was material that deserved a much better movie. And of course, Nick should be a great resource for all things SA.

  14. Absolutely agree Daniel and it's why I think HL is much stronger than Valley of Elah which came from a story written by the screenwriter for HL.

  15. The 'shaky cam' in THE HURT LOCKER did take a while to get used to, but hey we've seen this technique used before in docs, war films and horror films going back to BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. You do deserve effusive praise for this review, and even if I am regarded by some to be one of net's biggest "ass kissers" I think i need to give a shout out in a case like this, when the author has genuinely, truthfully and resounding gone the distance with his examination of an important contemporary film like THE HURT LOCKER. We had discussed the matter at WitD last week, and you admitted that I likes the film a bit more, but that on balance you were aboard here most enthusiastically. I had read the link you sent about much of the film being fraudulent according to a number of military people. But I tend to dismiss some of this as Bigelow's focus here was more on the question of uncertainty and that danger lurks around every corner. The last third of Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET, which is admittedly an odd point of comparison was also infused with this element, but we really need to go all the way back to Pontecorvo's BATTLE OF ALGIERS to get the real feel at what is really going on here.

    It's remarkable that a woman has directed this film in a sense, and for me even more amazing that Ms. Bigelow (a director I didn't care much for us until now) has made a film this powerful. It's certainly among the year's best films to this point.

  16. Well I thought I was the only one who wasn't bowled over by In the Valley of Elah, Craig, so your reaction is a little validating.

    Sam, thanks for your always genuine praise. You're right that my reservations with narrative bits and pieces didn't detract from my impression of this movie as a whole. Also, fair point about Bigelow attempting to focus more on the emotional experience of being a soldier than on an actual military protocol. I don't know if I find it all that remarkable that a woman made it so much as I find it remarkable that somebody else didn't make it, if that makes any sense. I don't know how it landed in her hands, but I'm saying that I'm surprised she was given a shot at it when there must have been a load of macho directors grubbing for it. It would be nearly impossible for any of them to have made a better film.

  17. I just saw The Hurt Locker

    What did I take home with me? I think the film effectively shows that U.S. presence in Iraq is a big mess. You get the same message from Filkins's award-winning non-fiction book The Forever War - which I just finished reading - although that book is much much more powerful than this film. As for the film, I felt it wandered and it was disjointed - and I wasn't as gripped as I hoped to be. As a matter of fact, I felt removed from some of the scenes that - on the surface - seem to be really scary situations. In general, I was disappointed; I think I need more time to determine more specifically why it disappointed me.

    One thing for sure - I want Ms. Bigelow to know that the shaky handheld camera effect absolutely failed to have any sort of you-are-there effect; it did nothing to create any tension or suspense. She could have done away with that and gone for some sharper editing.

  18. Thanks for the thoughts, Hokahey, and I have to catch up with your review of THL. I've heard of the book you mention but, believe it or not, I have yet to read any of the Iraq War books. Perhaps I'll start with that one, as I've heard a lot of good recommendations for it.

    I think the "removal" you talk about is in some way what I alluded to with the predictability or unrealistic suspicions here. As intense as the urban environment felt, it was pretty clear early on that James was going to defuse just about every bomb he came across. As a result, the heart-stopping suspense began to lessen with each call. At least that was my experience, and maybe yours. Overall I definitely just enjoyed the first half of this movie much more than the second.

    And as the shaky-cam goes, as I mentioned earlier it somehow went completely unnoticed by me. So in that sense I can agree that it didn't add anything for me.

  19. I'm shocked to hear that a lot of soldiers have called this film inaccurate because I believe Mark Boal's script for the movie was actually based on his real experience following a bomb squad unit. Based on that, it's weird to hear that soldiers are calling it unrealistic.

  20. You are correct, Danny - I think he spent something like a year embedded with an EOD squad. But the inaccuracies, I believe, are not with the existence of squads or the challenges they face, just the lack of supervision and/or dismissal of any procedural directives. I'm sure a lot of soldiers wish they had as much freedom and lack of micromanagement as Staff Sgt. James enjoys in THL.

  21. Okay, that I buy. Now that I think about, that makes a lot of sense, Renner's character basically made all the field decisions on his own.

  22. Right, which is just ridiculous to consider in the context of what I know about military protocol. He's a walking anxiety attack for any commanding officer, like Maverick from "Top Gun" without the charm and winning smile.

  23. Haha. Right on. I still think he did a great job with the performance.

  24. Well there was all kinds of Oscar talk bandied about Renner when THL was released, but that's now completely disappeared in the wake of Cristophe Waltz (is that his name?) in Inglourious Basterds, who, in my opinion, was excellent - and better.

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