Ambiguities of war: 8 questions about The Hurt Locker

"The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug."
---from Chris Hedge's War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning

1) What do Iraqis think of The Hurt Locker?

2) How is the thunderingly enthusiastic critical response to The Hurt Locker, its many awards, Oscar nominations, etc., related to American ambivalence concerning our role in the war? How does The Hurt Locker square with American media treatment of the war?

3) What are the political implications of The Hurt Locker? Does the movie, as Kathryn Bigelow hopes, bring "closure" to the war?

4) What, exactly, does Sergeant William James' bombsuit or Blast Suit evoke? The Pillsbury Dough Boy? Delusional American attempts to protect themselves from the consequences of war? The Michelin Man?

5) Why did Ralph Fiennes have a small role as the Contractor Team Leader? His celebrity presence threw me out of the movie.

6) Why is the film's most effective scene when William James stands before an immense aisle of breakfast cereals back in the states?

7) How much is Kathryn Bigelow's portrayal of William James both an affirmation and a critique of swaggering American military machismo?

8) How much should the film's realism or the lack of it affect our critical reactions to the movie?


Craig said…
I can answer #5. Fiennes starred in Bigelow's "Strange Days," they got along well, so she asked him to do this bit part in "Locker."

There's a big difference of opinion on his cameo. I love it because it accomplishes what Guy Pearce's does at the start of the movie: by killing off one of its few recognizable faces, the movie reminds you that no one is safe.
chuck Tryon said…
Ralph Fiennes was in the movie? I think I missed him.
Craig said…
He's the leader of the British soldiers who show up halfway into the movie with captured Iraqis. He gets shot during the sniper attack in the desert.
I guess one could justify Fiennes' presence in the film as serving a function like Janet Leigh in Psycho or Drew Barrymore in Scream, but I thought that he interfered with the verisimilitude of the cinema verite look of the rest of the movie. Bigelow might have been smarter to keep all name stars out of the mix.

In an unrelated note, it occurred to me that The Hurt Locker already anticipated one aspect of its critical response when Colonel Reed (another known face, David Morse) shows up all enthused about William James' feats of courage, saying "You're a wild man, you know that?" Colonel Reed comes off as uninformed and naive in comparison to William James' fellow soldiers, who just want to survive, and who can't understand why William keeps risking their lives for his adrenaline fix. What is the good of all this death-defying bravery if it imperils others?

Thanks, Craig, for answering number 5.
Joel Bocko said…
Filmdr., I almost avoided this post because I'm working on an upcoming piece on The Hurt Locker. But I've already read a bit on the film and while sometimes it's better to do the review "cold", at others one wants to go in stimulated by some of the other discussions.

#8 may be the point that interests me most because I recently read the Playboy article which inspired the film, and while there are definite similarities to the fictional story Bigelow directs, there are distinct differences as well. Namely, the central figure, while still a daredevil and lone wolf, is NOT reckless. James IS and this affects the way we see both the character and the movie.

I like that Hurt Locker is not explicitly political though I think some of the behind-the-scenes writing decision (such as that above) can certainly be read politically. It's refreshing to see a film which a) treats the Iraq war the way other wars have been fought, i.e. as an arena in which a story can be told; and b) is told from the soldiers' point of view, or at least something approximating it. I liked Jarhead a lot and that did the same thing (to very little appreciation) albeit about Gulf War I instead of Gulf War II.

Not at all sure what Bigelow means by bringing "closure" to the war though; I'll have to follow that link sooner or later, though right now I think I've probably dipped my toe in the water far enough.
Joel Bocko said…
Actually, what I meant to write above was "both the character AND THE WAR" - it is primarily the adoption of recklessness which imposes any sort of political metaphor on the film, and I question whether that was the most effective or pertinent note to take.
Richard Bellamy said…
1. I would love to know.
3. How can this bring closure to the war? Come on!
4. Just that suit took me out of the movie. My mind went through all the extravagant technology of war designed to protect human life while we still wage war. In essence, it makes it easier to wage war. We have those remote control robots that can be sent into a house instead of a soldier. If we have those big bomb suits, we might have body armor like that for soldiers. What about avatars? Actually, there's a sci-fi novel I read called Forever War which uses the avatar idea: soldier's minds control mechanical soldiers that go into war.
5. Me too! I read a positive comment about his appearance, but it really "threw me out of the movie."
7. Just read an article in the Cape Cod Times (Otis Air Force Base is on the Cape; lots of military families) about how most bomb disposal soldiers think the movie is unrealistic, they think it has too much John Wayne bravado, and they think it makes them look like reckless hot-shots instead of professionals.
8. A lot. There were scenes that I just did not believe. Therefore, they were not suspenseful to me.

I am so sad this movie is going to win the Oscar for Best Picture (most likely). Even though my pick is Basterds, I'd rather the other front runner - Avatar - win over Hurt Locker.
Jason Bellamy said…
4) Hokahey says, "Just that suit took me out of the movie." REALLY!?!? It's what they wear.

5) I'm with Craig. If anything, I think Fiennes presence subverts the war-movie cliche where only the nameless get killed ... at least until the end of the movie. That said, I have no problem whatsoever with big name actors taking small parts. That isn't distracting to me at all.

6) I'm not sure that it's the "most effective," but it works on two levels. The first is very basic: a man standing in what for most of us is an everyday environment that to him feels foreign. The second is deeper and genius: In staring at all the cereal boxes on the shelf, he is presented with a multitude of choices, just as when he's disarming a bomb, but his choices don't mean anything. There's no "wrong" choice. It's a reminder of how he misses the rush of duty, when every decision has a potentially life-altering consequence.

7) First in response to Hokahey: I read that same article that the Cape Cod Times seems to have picked up. (First in the LA Times, I think.) I thought it was an interesting story as a reminder to critics not to rush to the "realism" argument unless we know what we're talking about. But, yes, Renner does play a John Wayne type. I don't think the movie pretends anything different. He's always defying "the book" and getting bitched at for it. I don't think the film could be more honest about what he is.

As to its meaning within the film: What I love about that final scene is that it is equally tragic and triumphant. The tragedy is that he's lost himself to the war, and war means death. The triumph is that there are people willing to walk into the blast zone. I'd love to live in a world without war, but until that happens, we need those men and women.
Sam Juliano said…
I am not able to engage with this just now as I'm preparing late at night here my Monday round-up. But all these questions are pertinent, and the comments by the gifted usual suspects are excellent. You wisely skirt around any kind of definitive judgement and pose some interesting discussion starters.
Joel Bocko said…
Jason, as always some great observations - your #6 and unnumbered last point, in particular, are great articulations of points that either occurred to me too or should have!

I've uncomfortable with the classification of this movie as pro- or anti-war and part of its appeal to me is that it, to a certain extent, transcends these categories. They are useful for some films, but should not cover the gamut. That said, in the context of Iraq films The Hurt Locker is a fairly straightforward take on the troops but compared to the article which informed it, it still slants surprisingly towards dramatizing the more tragic and futile aspects of war, for better or worse.
Joel Bocko said…
Who knew florists had such need of war film analysis? What's NaveenAli hiding in those bouquets?!
Joel Bocko said…
(Maybe it's whatever Naveen's countrymen were smoking when they fashioned that closing ceremony tonight...)
Richard Bellamy said…
Jason - Yes, I know that bubble suit is what they wore. Actually, I knew that only from the movie; that was a new one for me. I guess a little explanation of the suit and how it worked might have precluded it from being a jarring image to me. As it is, there is an element of the ridiculous about it, but in a way that works for the film - because the nearly impossible tasks these men are asked to perform while Iraqis are videotaping them and on their cell phones are absurd as well.

I was reporting the newspaper article, not necessarily agreeing with it. In the history of war movies, most professional soldiers find fault with most war movies. As James Jones says in the last sentence of The Thin Red Line, One day one of their number would write a book about all this, but none of them would believe it, because none of them would remember it that way.
I'm not bothered too much by what the professional soldiers say because the film presents a story that might include somewhat implausible situations that are, nevertheless, dramatic and meaningful. It might also present situations that are outside their experience or how they remembered it. Still, it's the job of the film to make me believe it, and I wasn't always with The Hurt Locker in this respect.
Jason Bellamy said…
Hokahey: That TRL line says it all.

I figured we were in agreement about that part, but I was just expanding upon my thoughts about the piece.
Thanks to everyone for your answers (although does anyone know of any Iraqi perspectives on the movie? I've not been able to find any).

Thanks for your input, Movieman. Bigelow also said that she hopes that The Hurt Locker can begin a debate, and she certainly has done that. My chief problem with the film's "realism" is the way it must gloss over all kinds of ideological and more nuanced ways of viewing the Iraq war. I wonder if Americans would prefer to cheer on this movie instead of really delving into the complexities of the war, and that's why I'd like to know what Iraqis think of it. The Hurt Locker conveys a paranoid landscape where any foreign person (with a cell phone, or communicating by sign language from a tower in the distance) can be a threat. The movie in this way emphasizes our lack of knowledge about Iraqi culture, but does not seem inclined to do much about it. American soldiers seem inclined to point a gun and yell at anyone or anything they don't understand (sometimes with good reason).

Thanks for your thoughts, Hokahey. I too prefer Basterds for the best Oscar, although I also found The Hurt Locker hard to get out of my head. I was also struck by the scene where William sneaks into a person's house, and the guy assumes that he's CIA and asks him to sit down. I like the way William comes across as both invasive and ignorant about his investigation, both of which seem to me typical of American efforts in the region at the time.

Thanks, Jason, for your thoughts. I liked the cereal scene because it works on several levels very subtly. As you say, his choice doesn't mean anything. Also, the crowded aisle full of cereals like Lucky Charms emphasizes what he has been fighting for--an endless mindless consumerism where Americans were encouraged to shop instead of sacrifice for the war. The grotesque multiplicity of the supermarket stands in contrast to the stripped down Iraqi interiors and landscapes. Americans just come up with more, more, more sweetened junk, boxes signifying nothing but branded amusement at the expense of nutrition. Who can blame William for wanting to return? I was bothered by the slightly manipulative aspect of the last scene when he walks manfully toward the camera and suddenly he's in his blast suit. Is that some kind of homage to The Right Stuff? His blast suit looks so ridiculous as armor to re-enter battle.


Thanks for your comment and all of the flower ads. Some foliage is always useful in the midst of discussion about a desert war.
Also, thanks Sam for your generous support, both here and on the Monday morning diary link of your Wonders in the Dark blog.
Jason Bellamy said…
FilmDr: Great further thoughts on the cereal scene that I hadn't considered. Well done!

Your reaction to that final scene seems to be tied in part to your objections (and Hokahey's objections) to the suit. It doesn't look silly to me at all, because I know what it is (same with a knight's suit of armor or a scuba suit), but I guess I can understand the absurdity of it.
Anonymous said…
"I was also struck by the scene where William sneaks into a person's house, and the guy assumes that he's CIA and asks him to sit down. I like the way William comes across as both invasive and ignorant about his investigation, both of which seem to me typical of American efforts in the region at the time."

That scene is political genius, in an American context. William barges in. His quarry turns out to be a mild-mannered professor oozing culture and fear. The scene starts as a ham-fisted reflexive anti-American allegory. The professor then drops fear and asks William to sit at the table together. William is uncertain, the metaphor here suggests an inability to understand culture, specifically an insult to Arab hospitality.

But then the professor turns, and is quite cool. And he is quite comfortable with CIA (William is plain clothes and why else normally would he be there?) because he sees a counterpart. The mild professor is, in reality, a likely Ba'athist, maybe a ringleader in the anit-American/Shia insurgency. William suspects he sees the face of evil and retreats.

Message: America, personified in William, does not belong in Iraq because of its arrogance, it does not belong because this is an evil it does not understand. Or, William does not belong, he is a "foot soldier", not one who can understand these complexities beyond his pay-grade.

The portrayal is a beautiful inversion of triteness. I would also like to read an English translation of the Professor's wife's Arabic harangue.
Richard Bellamy said…
This wa a stimulating post, FilmDr. A lot of great thoughts and debate here on two divisive topics: war movies and U.S. presence in Iraq.
Joel Bocko said…
"The Hurt Locker conveys a paranoid landscape where any foreign person (with a cell phone, or communicating by sign language from a tower in the distance) can be a threat. The movie in this way emphasizes our lack of knowledge about Iraqi culture, but does not seem inclined to do much about it. American soldiers seem inclined to point a gun and yell at anyone or anything they don't understand (sometimes with good reason)."

This was exactly what I liked about the film's approach: the Iraqis are impersonal but not dehumanized. We never doubt that they are real people with their own point of view, but we are not given access to this. The movie strikes a very difficult balance, and a necessary one for a film which takes the soldier's point of view.

I would welcome a film about Iraq told from the Iraqi point of view, but I don't think it's the job of every film on the war to achieve this. It's certainly not what this film is looking to capture.
Joel Bocko said…
Btw, more great thoughts on the cereal scene (from you, filmdr). Increasingly I think if the movie has ANY political message (beyond the way it re-interprets Boal's original article to contain same marginally allegorical action), it's in this coda. And that's it's guns are not aimed so much at the military, which just does its job - an often necessary one, but at the insipidness of the society for which the military is ostensibly fighting. As with all drugs, the war experience becomes necessary only for those who can't get their stimulation elsewhere.

James' closing speech to his infant son runs the risk of being too explanatory (especially following the memorably and effectively oblique exchange following the "suicide?" bomber), yet it resonates.

I loved the manipulativeness of the conclusion, because it was so obviously ambiguous in content, given all we've just seen, the style didn't need to convey uncertainty.
Thanks for your insights, Anonymous.

Your point about the professor possibly being Ba'athist shows up my ignorance of the war. I get most of my ideas about the Iraq conflict from Thomas Ricks' Fiasco The American Military Adventure in Iraq, which does a good job of conveying the many absurdities of the war. At any rate, William's ignorance implicates us, the American viewers, as being equally uninformed. Isn't it possible that William would have been killed if he sat down? It reminds me of the point in the Times essay "How not to depict a war"

which points out that "One of the great disservices of The Hurt Locker is the impression that soldiers in Iraq were masters of their destinies." The film conveys an old-fashioned sense of the autonomous soldier, but the reality was much more dangerous and random, and I wonder how much The Hurt Locker feeds into its American audience's desire for a sense of coherence and autonomy when it simply wasn't there. If The Hurt Locker goes on to win the Best Picture Oscar, how much will that be because Academy members want to have an still-edgy-enough narrative that flatters them as it supplies a fallacious coherence to the war? Who exactly is winning that award?

When one studies old Oscar Award ceremonies like the one with The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, one can see how the Academy displays a blinkered, philistine take on the movies of their day. The ceremony seems better at designating contemporary prejudices more than any aesthetic judgment. The year in which Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash exemplifies that.

Thanks, Hokahey and Movieman. Joel, I linked your insightful new post about the movie on the word "cereal" in the post. (Some day, I would like to write a long post in which every word has a cogent link).

As for your point about "Iraqis are impersonal but not dehumanized," I am reminded of why I like Inglourious Basterds better. Tarantino's Nazis are delightfully smart, conniving, and resourceful, as the King Kong scene demonstrates. The Iraqis, with the exception of the Disneyesque boy, are largely unknown. We mostly just get the impression that they are sneaky. Mainstream American cinema still seems a long way from conveying them as much more than that.
Joel Bocko said…
FilmDr, thanks for the link!

While I don't necessarily agree that the film imposes too much coherence on the Iraq experience - at least no more so than most war films impose coherence on any war - to the extent this is true it would neatly mirror the Deer Hunter controversy of '78. Another film which many felt misrepresented the conflict at hand though I think we can agree that Hurt Locker's liberties with the facts are less bold than Deer Hunter's.

Again, I don't think the portrayal of Iraqis as unknowable is problematic within the context of this particular film. Overall, I'd be very interested in a movie which gave us the Iraqis' perspective on the conflict (to a certain extent the great documentary Iraq in Fragments does this by often taking on the visceral quality of a narrative feature; granted, it was crafted by an American but then Hurt Locker was not created by soldiers either).

Still, looking at it from an American point of view I think the soldier's perspective should come first and it has mostly been excluded from pop cultural discourse for a variety of reasons. I embrace the film for this reason among many; if we got a slew of soldier's-eye-view tales from Iraq, of course, it might be time for something different but for now I think this is the right film at the right moment. If it wins, I'd compare it more to '69 than '67 though of course it would not be as bold a pick as Midnight Cowboy - still, I think voters would be selecting a film that actually resonates with its era rather than ignoring it. (Not that this is necessarily the criterion of a great movie, of course.)

As if it isn't obvious from my re-articulation of points here in my review on Lost in the Movies (not to mention my wholesale quotation of Jason Bellamy's lucid point above) your post here really helped me tease out my views on the movie, and get a wide range of perspectives - I read just about all the links. Thanks again!
Thanks, Joel. You make an excellent point comparing the reception of The Deer Hunter with that of The Hurt Locker. I guess I would like to see something more in the vein of Apocalypse Now when it comes to Iraq war films. The ambiguities of the Iraq conflict demands a major renovation of the conventions of war films, and I still dislike the thought that with every award for The Hurt Locker, Americans applaud their own prejudices instead of gazing on the movie's strengths and weaknesses clearly.
Castor said…
I just want to add to #8: Most of those situations and behavior would not happen in real life. Some of the portrayals are downright disrespectful of service members. Grunts abandoning their vehicle and huddling together in a courtyard like cowards? James going AWOL in the middle of the night all by himself and then coming back through the front gate? Heck, they could not even get the uniforms right?
Thanks, Castor. I find it interesting that a film prefers to give a character freedom of movement in Baghdad whereas the reality made it extremely difficult to wander the city. Have you seen this?

I like this point: "The movies glorify a situation that has no real glory in it."
Joel Bocko said…
I doubt the intent was glorification, though. Keep in mind that Mark Boal also wrote In the Valley of Elah, which is pretty solidly an antiwar film. (Both Elah & Hurt Locker were adapted from his Playboy articles.)

The guy on whom Sgt. James is based was, if anything, more gung-ho than the guy in the movie (though, it's worth pointing out, far, far more responsible than James).
Thanks, Movieman. Some related links:

The Hurt Locker and the bomb within us:

Is Green Zone the new Hurt Locker?

Emerson's analysis

Popular Posts