Movie Takes

The Hurt Locker

The best of the Iraq War films, such as they are.

By 8.5.09

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Before I went to see it, I had heard from more than one source that The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, was the best movie about Iraq yet made. This is true, though only because the competition is so pathetically feeble. It begins with an epigraph by Chris Hedges, ending with the assertion that "War is a drug." So it's a film à thèse then? Boy, is it ever! Its principal character, Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), is an adrenalin-junkie of a bomb-disposal specialist whose crazy bravery is an expression only of his personal authenticity and no more social or philosophical cause, such as honor or idealism about bringing democracy to Iraq. I wondered if his name were not some arcane joke about the psychologist who wrote of "the moral equivalent of war," but here war has no moral or moral equivalent. It is just the most fun you can have with your bomb-proof suit on.

Well, it's a point of view. Naturally, James's crazy bravery does not endear the Sergeant to his fellow team-members whose fate is bound up with his. He is the point man, the one who takes the big risks, but the risks to the others, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are not inconsiderable either, and they are two guys who just want to do their job and get home in one piece. Their respect for James's bravery is leavened by something close to hatred for the risks he causes them to run. At one point, Sanborn hints that he might kill him before he gets him killed. "Are you serious about killing him?" asks Eldridge. Sanborn himself isn't sure if he is serious or not. When Eldridge is shot in the leg and breaks his femur in nine places, he rails at James as he is being medevaced out: "This is what happens when you shoot someone! We don't have to go out looking for trouble so you can get your f****** adrenalin fix, you f***!"

No, but the adrenalin fix makes Sgt. James an indisputably cool guy. Mr. Renner has the look of a star about him -- as others besides me have noticed -- since he does so well at portraying that mixture of courage and cool and calm independence from the rest of the military world whose uniform he wears that Hollywood has come to treasure far above mere patriotism or love or loyalty or any of the more social virtues. He is quietly contemptuous towards the brass as also towards any rationale for what the army might be doing in Iraq. He's a maverick who comes off way better for it than the rest of the American forces there, and this also gives him credibility with the Hollywood left. After a solitary face-off with a taxi driver who may or may not be a suicide bomber, he observes that "if he wasn't an insurgent, he sure as hell is now" -- a version of the liberal commonplace that our enemies wouldn't be enemies if we weren't fighting them.

The "name" actors in the picture are mere cameos and are either fools or are killed within a few minutes of being introduced to us -- which is another way to emphasize Mr. Renner's star qualities as well as to play the po mo game of teasing us with artifice. It ought to be a reminder that the movie's celebrated hallmarks of military authenticity -- like having to clean a dead-man's blood off his ammunition before our heroes can use it or the fine line between camaraderie and murderous resentment in their horseplay -- are equally calculated. Forty years ago, Mr. Renner's part would have been played by Steve McQueen and no questions asked. It's a movie, you see. It's true that The Hurt Locker is respectful to our soldiers and does not regard them as either dupes or victims, but it is still enmeshed in the Hollywood culture, and it has (albeit only implicitly) the other Iraq movies' assumption that their mission is pointless and self-defeating.

For all its authenticity, then, the movie is in this sense unreal, since it recognizes no reason for the things that its characters do except for the thrill of doing them. I know that this emphasis on the absurdity and the horror of war has a long and venerable history in the movies. Probably it is also true that a lot of real-life soldiers have learned from the movies not to be such a sap as to talk about what Frank Capra, in a different movie universe, used to call "Why We Fight." But to insist upon their existential authenticity to the exclusion of any sense of why the war is being fought in the first place is a distortion of reality in an entirely predictable direction. It's not just the senior officers here who are fools or knaves but, presumably, the whole command structure and the politicians back in Washington who have decided to send these men into action for no apparent reason. Now where have we heard of something like that before?

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.