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The Hurt Locker (2009) – Shadows of Profundity

September 1, 2009

Kathryn Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron stated, when asked for a comment about her new film, that “I think that this could be the Platoon for the Iraq War”.  While I do not necessarily agree with the comparison for reasons that will become apparent, I do think that it is an interesting one to draw.  Underlying Cameron’s comment is the fact that Hurt Locker is one of only a few films about the Iraq War that attempt to look past the politics in order to focus upon the psychology of the individuals actually doing the fighting.  This change of emphasis is harder to achieve than you might expect as film-makers are understandably reluctant to give the full Colonel Kurtz treatment to the people fighting a war that is still on-going.  Indeed, Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah (2007) skirted around the issue of war’s dehumanising effect by showing the impact of the war not upon the individuals doing the fighting but rather upon their families.  Similarly, David Simon’s TV adaptation of Evan Wright’s Generation Kill (2004) lacked bite by virtue of an unfortunate tendency to portray its soldiers as quirky but ultimately heroic individuals trapped in unpleasant situations by self-serving bosses and a corrupt system.  Bigelow’s Hurt Locker does undeniably adopt a more direct approach to the psychology of war, it is just a pity that what intellectual content there is in the film is starved of oxygen by the elaborate set-pieces that form the bulk of the film’s running time.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is, as is traditional in these kinds of films, a man on the edge.  An experienced bomb disposal expert, he takes over a team operating in and around an Iraqi city we assume to be Baghdad.  From the very beginning, James horrifies his team-mates with a total disregard not only for his own safety but also for that of his team and of any surrounding civilians; He refuses to use robots to inspect uncovered bombs, he refuses to tell the rest of the team what he is up to and he habitually takes off his armour as he  engages his team in more and more dangerous disposal duties.  These attempts at disposal are wonderfully portrayed by Bigelow, whose control of tension and pacing are flawless throughout the film’s big set pieces, including a fantastically tactical engagement between the bomb disposal team and an Iraqi sniper.  The extraordinary power of these set pieces is partly down to the stylised documentary aesthetic granted the film by United 93 (2006) cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, but it is also a reflection of Bigelow’s contextual framing.

Korean film poster

Korean film poster

By refusing to engage in the kind of political grand-standing that crippled Iraq War films such as Gavin Hood’s Rendition (2007) or Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs (2007), Bigelow is able to do away with many of the awkward narrative conceits that directors use to dramatise political and sociological theories.  The Hurt Locker is not about a confrontation with an evil bomber as in Peter Berg’s The Kingdom (2007), Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994) or Stephen Hopkins’ Blown Away (1994).  Instead it draws its tension from a confrontation between the protagonists and the world itself.  The bomb disposal team grapple not only with the challenges set by the elaborately constructed  terrorist bombs but also from the fact that the bombs are in a densely populated city filled with people who are not necessarily friendly.  Indeed, in one scene, James tries to defuse a car bomb while his team-mates struggle to keep it together as ever open window and every civilian onlooker become spotters who could detonate the bomb and kill them all instantly.

Still from Film

Still from Film

With the back-bone of the film made up of scenes in which a group of individuals effectively battle against the world in an attempt to survive long enough to make it home, you would think that the stage was set for a character-driven film about the reasons why people go to war and how they cope with the realities of that existence.  But the film’s more intellectual other foot simply never drops.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Far from being similar to Platoon, The Hurt Locker invites a much more obvious comparison with Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon (1987).  Much like Riggs, James is on the edge, self-destructive and alienated from civilian life.  Much like Riggs, James has a much more stable and sensible Black partner (Anthony Mackie) who is forever nagging him about how his crazy stunts are going to get them all killed.  Indeed, James is actually a less well formed character than Gibson’s Riggs as Riggs’ self-destructiveness came from the loss of his wife, whereas James’ seems to come from a rather nebulous sense of alienation comedically conveyed by his absolute consternation when asked to choose a breakfast cereal from amid the dozens of varieties on sale at his local supermarket.

Could be a Still from Hurt Locker

Could be a Still from Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is a pleasant enough film but its reliance upon generic characters with utterly generic relationships ultimately robs the film of any pretence it might have of psychological depth or genuinely visionary status.  Much like the summer’s other war film Inglorious Basterds,  Bigelow’s undeniable capacity to deliver effective and beautifully made scenes is in no way wedded to a similar level of skill when it comes to managing an extended narrative.  James’ existential angst is not only hollow and generic but also clearly present only to grant a thin veneer of narrative coherence to a film that is nothing more than a series of set pieces.

  1. September 1, 2009 4:16 pm

    including a fantastically tactical engagement between the bomb disposal team and an Iraqi sniper

    I think this scene is revealing because it demonstrates just how little Bigelow is interested in context, in anything that happens outside her team. There are two SAS men still alive after the initial attack but as soon as Sanborn gets the Barrett they simply cease to exist. We occasionally see them hovering at the very edge frame but she is only interested in James (dad), Sanborn (mum) and, to a lesser extent, Eldridge (kid). Never mind the political situation, even within the action of the film it is uninterested in what happens outside the team.

  2. September 1, 2009 7:06 pm

    I would just put that down to clunky writing personally. The SAS guys were there to provide a cameo and as gun. Having provided both they disappeared from the fray.

  3. September 7, 2009 8:54 am

    Saw this at the weekend. Agree with your summation. In a quest for supposed ‘realism’ of how war is an ednless drfit from one opportunity to die to the next, it struck me the film had been robbed of a cinematic narrative it badly needed.

    I also sensed the ghost of ‘Point Break’ lingering in the background via the frequent male bonding scenes, not to mention the fix of adrenaline the lead went seeking in the final sequence accomapined by rock music which was akin to Patrick Swayze riding that last big wave. Certainly, the Hurt Locker was a far more measured film than Point Break, but it didn’t really make the journey to an especially revealing insight into the ghastly but exhilarating experience of war itself.

    Your comparison with Lthal Weapon therefore was bizaarely spot on, though war films often succumb to such comparisons. A convincing argument can also be made that The Deer Hunter is in many ways an arthouse Rambo.

  4. September 8, 2009 9:46 am

    Well, I’ve long thought that Rambo was a more subtle than its sequels suggest. I certainly prefer it to The Deer Hunter.

    I agree with you about the ghost of Point Break in the shape of James as a self-destructive adrenaline junkie looking for just one more fix. The problem is that I was hoping (perhaps unfairly) for that point to be expanded upon.

    If one soldier can go to war for purely selfish psychological reasons, what of all of the others? what of the politicians themselves? Apocalypse Now suggested that War, more than anything else, was this psychological free space in which any kind of psychosis, personality flaw and fanaticism can find their natural place. It’s a completely different psychological landscape and I think that this is almost reflected on the level of froeign policy.

    For example, were the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq necessary or merely a form of psycho-political catharsis for the American people just as September 11 was a similar acte gratuit for Radical Islam. None of these conflicts, with their hundreds of thousands of casualties has accomplished anything strategically significant and yet they’re clearly satisfying some urge on some level.

    I think there were times when Hurt Locker came close to exploring that kind of idea. An idea that was actually explored by a number of Vietnam war films (including Apocalypse Now and Ful Metal Jacket).

  5. September 10, 2009 8:56 am

    Speaking of which, here’s the piece that the opening quotation is taken from :

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