[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?