A walk-on part in the war
The war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan and the “war on terror” (to use the increasingly forgotten Rumsfeldian formulation) never really got their John Wayne/Green Berets moment in Hollywood: a big movie, the unembarrassed purpose of which is to endorse the military action.
Most of the serious responses have been liberal-patriot fence-straddlers, multistranded stories urgently set in Washington, the Middle East, south Asia and elsewhere, tying themselves in knots in an attempt to acknowledge a dovey point of view while covertly leaning to the hawk’s—pictures such as Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, which showed torture in terms of CIA man George Clooney being tortured by an Arab, Robert Redford’s mealy-mouthed Lions for Lambs, Gavin Hood’s issue-fudging Rendition and Peter Berg’s The Kingdom, with its feeble moral equivalence between jihadist zealots and the United States army.
How weird and ironic, then, that the nearest thing we have to Wayne is also the best and most insightful anti-war film about Iraq: Kathryn Bigelow’s blazingly powerful action movie, The Hurt Locker, the unpretentious clarity of which makes for a refreshing change.
Bigelow is, in dramatic terms, on the side of the soldiers. She has a single location—Baghdad—and wants to find out what is going on inside the US combatants’ hearts and minds. Debating the purpose and origins of the conflict is not the point. Yet, for my money, Bigelow says more about the agony and tragedy of war than all those earnest, well-meaning movies that sound as if they’ve been co-scripted by Josh and Toby from The West Wing.
The Hurt Locker is about the long, painful endgame in Iraq, the asymmetric nightmare in which the military cannot engage the enemy in any meaningful sense. Their purpose is a long, long series of patrols in which they are heavily armoured moving targets, in continuous danger from what the British call “roadside bombs”, a phrase now being superseded by the American term IEDs: improvised explosive devices—booby traps hidden in rubble and often detonated remotely by phone.
Jeremy Renner stars as Staff Sergeant William James, head of a three-man bomb-tech unit or disposal squad. His immediate subordinate is Sergeant Sanborn, played by Anthony Mackie, an African-American nettled by James’s redneck recklessness—and the third man is Specialist Eldridge, played by Brian Geraghty, a young soldier visibly unravelling.
James is starting to unsettle his team with suicidal displays of bravado. Instead of sending in the remote controlled “auto-bot” with its fixed camera to investigate possible bombs, James is increasingly and impatiently striding in to the kill zone himself—as Iraqi civilians look on impassively, some with video cameras, getting ready, as the soldiers say, for their YouTube moment.
Sometimes James does not even wear the heavy body armour that would minimise injury if the worst happened. He is earning a reputation as a “wild man” among the top brass, who are not rushing to rebuke him.
Is James becoming unhinged, driven over the edge by the intolerable life-threatening danger that tests the sanity of every soldier? Or is it something politically incorrect to say out loud: that the danger of war is deeply exciting and James wants to mainline it directly into the vein? Either way, Sanborn and Eldridge are in a profound dilemma. They can sympathise with his death wish, certainly—it is an understandable response, perhaps in some Helleresque sense the only sane response, giving the finger to this losing game of Russian roulette.
Bigelow adroitly shows how Sanborn and Eldridge resent and yet sympathise with their gung-ho commanding officer. They are scared by him and yet they are excited and even inspired by him. In his crazy way he has leadership qualities. And yet they also know that he could get them all killed. And so Sanborn and Eldridge, with military dispassion, have to weigh up a strategic option: killing James and making it look like an accident or enemy action.
In some ways Bigelow’s film repudiates the conventions of narrative: it could be seen as simply a series of unbearably tense vignettes, in which a soldier, his face dripping with fear and sweat, is hunched surgeon-like over a suspect device in the epicentre of an area that has been cleared in the shape of the coming blast.
In one bizarre but intestine-wrenching scene, James and his men come across some loose-cannon Brits, led by Ralph Fiennes, who affect TE Lawrence-style headgear that almost earns them some fatal friendly fire. The encounter, inevitably, winds up in a wild-west shoot-out that has a surreally drawn out, hallucinatory quality.
The title basically means Shell Shock 2.0. It refers to the physical trauma of being in close proximity, time after time, to the deafening blast of an explosion, controlled or otherwise. That obscene noise and, perhaps just as awful, the tense prelude of compressed silence, encloses you in a tight prison of pain: the “hurt locker”. Bigelow’s film does a very good job of putting you inside it as well.—