HLposterUSA2I have no firsthand experience of what it is like to be at war. However, like many other people, my life has been touched by the military. My father served in the Navy – first active duty, including in Vietnam, and then the reserves for many years. My grandfather, a German immigrant, fought with the U.S Army in World War II – I can’t even imagine what that was like.

I also worked for two years for an organization that served veterans and service members. While there, I met many incredible people who had been in a host of difficult situations in their service. In particular, I learned about explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) from a co-worker – the only woman in her company in the army who was awarded the prestigious silver star for her dangerous work essentially dismantling bombs.

It was with this in mind that I watched our newest film – The Hurt Locker. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, this film won the Oscar for Best Picture for 2009 even though it was released in 2008 (a technicality because it was not released in the United States in 2009). It’s of note that Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman in history to win Best Director. I found it shocking that a woman had never received this distinction before 2009. The film tells the story of a three-man EOD squad in the Iraq War. It’s shot in a roughshod way in some parts, with poetic slow-motion angles in others. The film tells the story of three men – James, Sanborn, and Eldridge – and their trials and tribulations in both their work and personal lives. A quote displayed at the very beginning of the film sets the stage for the entire experience – “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” (The line is from War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, a best-selling 2002 book by Chris Hedges, a New York Times war correspondent and journalist.) This rush and this addiction are central themes throughout the story.

This is the most recent Best Picture we’ve drawn, just a few years before we started this project. Nevertheless, I was surprised by how far removed I’ve come to feel from that time.

The film primarily depicts the EOD squad’s final month or so of deployment until the end of their rotation. After their team leader is killed by a detonation, Sanborn and Eldridge meet his replacement, James. But whereas his predecessor was careful and methodical, James approaches his work with a recklessness that distresses his team members. The stress of their missions is damaging the mental health of Eldridge, who is suffering from obsessive thoughts. Sanborn is increasingly resentful of the unnecessary peril James courts with his actions. James, for his part, grows increasingly irresponsible after a macabre find during a raid on an insurgent hideout: a dead Iraqi boy’s body is in the process of being loaded with explosives and James believes it is the same boy he had befriended at the American base.

The film is shot with a heavy reliance on handheld cameras. The cinematography shows a deliberate carelessness toward depth of field; important elements are left out of focus for an instant in a shot, then brought into sharpness. Obviously this is meant to invoke the feel of documentary filmmaking, presumably to lend a sense of realism or urgency. I find myself becoming less enamored of this faux-documentary style. If the intent is to bring us into the action, is the purpose not negated when I find myself saying aloud “I just want the camera to stay still?” Part of the problem is that we are living at a time when visual media seems to be caught in a perverse feedback loop concerning its fascination with “reality.” The faux-cinema verite camera has become a staple of television shows like Arrested Development, but reality TV shows are where this can most reliably be seen. But as reality shows are increasingly understood to be anything but “real,” these techniques that draw attention to the camera itself can do more to expose the artifice rather than enhance the reality.

I have to agree with Mouse regarding the documentary style approach, but for a different reason. I think it has an adverse effect of causing viewers to believe they are actually watching a documentary. The Hurt Locker is fictional, but I am concerned that many viewers would take it for a completely factual account. Sure, there are elements based on fact, but I think we live in times where people exercise media savvy less and less. I read a couple of blogs and pieces about veterans’ responses to this film, and it seemed to vary greatly. Some appreciated the ways in which this film heightened people’s awareness of what dealing with EODs was actually like; others maintained their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan were nothing like this.

From reading interviews, I do think Bigelow’s goal as a director seems to be to show the human cost of war. Her approach in this film is to focus on individuals’ stories, and I think that is the right way to go for her purposes. I did find myself wanted a few more big picture points spelled out for us in certain scenes, though. I think those could have been added without detracting from her perspective.

The most compelling scene in the movie for me came at the end, when James returns home to his girlfriend and child. The three of them are in the grocery store when his girlfriend asks him to pick up some cereal. He is faced with the rows and rows of options that are standard fare in the United States – and he is overwhelmed and bewildered. This is no longer a space he is comfortable in. He can confront danger, dismantle bombs, live under constant threat – but having to make a mundane choice is uncomfortable for him. It is more than he can handle – there are too many options, and he has grown accustomed to having a great deal of direction and parameter in his work, and he ultimately returns to duty shortly after this homecoming. It seems from the dialogue that he does this electively, but we also know that many of our troops were deployed over and over. There is a high cost to military families that came with this constant deployment. That might be another movie for Bigelow to tackle.

The Hurt Locker departs somewhat from the traditional formula of the war movie in that it lacks a large climactic battle at to conclude the story; it is a countdown, not a build-up. Rather, the last scene in Iraq is yet another incident concerning a bomb that needs to be handled, though a particularly horrific one. An Iraqi non-combatant has had a timebomb forcibly attached to his body with padlocks. The team tries futilely to free him while he pleas with them. This episode could be read as an extended metaphor for the relationship between the American military and the Iraqi population. The soldiers want to save him, but cannot trust his motives and may very well need to shoot him dead if he proves a danger. Very much against his will he has become both victim and weapon, and ultimately the best the Americans can do is express their regret and make a run for it.

I liked how the scenes set in America formed a downbeat coda, the come-down from the drug of combat. The scene in the supermarket plays like a less blunt version of Sylvester Stallone’s “back there” speech at the end of First Blood. The return to mundanity even reminds me a bit of The Best Years of Our Lives, where a hero from the Army Air Corps has to ask for his old job at the soda fountain.

As for the question of inaccuracies concerning military practice – I’ve said before I don’t necessarily believe there’s a correlation between realism and quality in dramatic filmmaking. But Katy did raise the issue of to what extent the viewer lets drama inform- or misinform- their understanding of the real world. It requires a certain amount of sophistication to remind oneself that something intending to entertain or influence doesn’t necessarily intend to inform (accurately). As I write this, I think of the dubiously edited propaganda videos that have become a popular means to attack non-profit organizations and the credulity viewers have shown them. Are viewers canny enough to recognize the difference between storytelling technique and reality? Given the popularity of birther, 9-11 truther and climate change denial theories, that’s a lot of faith to put in people.

As a final thought on this film, I would recommend it paired with Susan Sontag’s critical book Regarding the Pain of Others. Both could be used in a classroom, or by someone interested themselves in the topic of war, the enemy, nations, other human beings and suffering. Throughout The Hurt Locker, I found myself thinking of Sontag and wondering if Bigelow had similar motives. As I said, upon reading about her more, I think she did. I thought of this film as an effort towards consciousness-raising – a reminder of the human cost of war. While it was not my favorite film of those we’ve viewed, and I did find some parts flawed, I think it did what its director hoped it would. I know I need those reminders, at regular intervals, to help inspire me to fight for a world in which the horror of war need not exist. Art like this reminds us why that fight is worth engaging in, however futile it may feel.

Looking at the field of nominees has me wondering just what made The Hurt Locker the Best Picture of 2009. I personally liked District 9 more. Up was wildly original and emotionally engaging; it was probably the best movie I saw in 2009, but cartoons don’t actually win. The Hurt Locker wasn’t bad. What it was, in the last year of the aughts, near the height of the Mission Accomplished Era, was timely. And perhaps that answers my question.

Also nominated in 2009:
The Blind Side
District 9
Inglourious Basterds
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
A Serious Man
Up in the Air



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