The Hurt Locker is not a great war film. It doesn’t glorify combat or condemn battle. It does not try to explain why conflict exists. It does not salute the dead or mourn their deaths.
It’s an explosive and honest rendering of what happens in war zones. The film, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, focuses on the experiences of a group of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. In the prologue, New York Times reporter Chris Hedges says, “… war is a drug.”
Then we meet the addicts—two casual users and a junkie. But sitting there, screening it in the dark with three friends and a room full of strangers, I suddenly realized that many of us are enablers, if not pushers.
When the biggest box-office hit of the summer is a fictional Armageddon between out-sized machines and the human race (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, over $200 million in box-office receipts in the first week), and when some game-making mental midgets decide it’s OK to design a video game around the very real, very bloody 2004 battle of Fallujah (Six Days in Fallujah, which thankfully has been shelved), I think we have reached a societal acceptance of war that condones and promotes it.
Bigelow’s film points no fingers and presents no grand metaphor. Nothing about winners and losers, victory or defeat, missions accomplished or left unfinished. Every day the soldiers of Delta Company go out and try to detect, defuse or detonate bombs. Besieged Iraqi citizens, themselves victims of the same bombs, dispassionately observe the efforts.
The trio at the center of the film—Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty)—are soldiers we rarely ever see or witness. James is the wildcard who parachutes in when the original bomb tech is, well, blown up. The shy Eldridge, who barely gets out alive, is along for the wild ride. He’s not addicted to the potent cocktail of arms and violence like James and Sanborn. And as pumped as Sanborn can get, he is an amateur compared to the adrenaline-embossed, reckless James. Is James trying to commit suicide when he breaks protocol while dealing with explosive devices? Maybe. But you can’t take your eyes off of him.
There is an undertow of testosterone and racial animus in the way James and Sanborn consistently clash. But it never colors the story. Critics of the film say there is not enough narrative, and Bigelow, who I’ve been a fan of since 1987’s Near Dark, has just strung a series of disjointed scenes together.
But that is war. There is no coherent narrative. If you try to impose some grand design, you will have committed a deadly mistake. It’s something the late Robert McNamara learned way too late.
Nick Charles is a regular contributor to The Root.