Why is the Iraq film The Hurt Locker a strong contender to win the Best Picture, Original Screenplay, and Director Oscars at Sunday night’s ceremony? Because The Hurt Locker is the first major Iraq movie to be an actual movie — not a celluloid op-ed piece.
Best Actor nominee Jeremy Renner owns The Hurt Locker as a funny, cocky, testosterone-fueled member of the Army’s explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team. Staff Sergeant William James’ job is to defuse hidden roadside booby traps before they explode. Marching through the dusty streets in a shock-deflecting suit that looks like something from Apollo 13, Renner somehow makes this uniform look cool.
Kathryn Bigelow, the action-movie vet who directed this film with full-on bravado and a Hitchcockian knack for building suspense, has been applauded by the critics. So that’s one strike against it. But if you read the critics very carefully, they’re frustrated by exactly the qualities that make the film such an impressive achievement. Writing in the New York Times, for instance, A.O. Scott sniffed that the film is “a little evasive” because it’s “not necessarily about the causes and consequences of the Iraq war, mind you” and depicts “men who risk their lives every day on the streets of Baghdad and in the desert beyond” who are “too stressed out, too busy, too preoccupied with the details of survival to reflect on larger questions about what they are doing there.”
In other words: too bad this movie couldn’t have jammed in a few conversations in which the troops deride Donald Rumsfeld, a sequence that proves that U.S. troops are puppets of Halliburton, or (at very least) a couple of ironic shots of that “Mission Accomplished” banner.
As the documentaries on the Iraq war show, soldiers do occasionally discuss these matters in the field, but mostly in passing. They’re not obsessed by them to anywhere near the degree that the media are. Why? Because as experienced combat vets they don’t expect things to go perfectly, they’re trained to respect the chain of command, and (above all) they overwhelmingly support the cause, support President Bush, and know that the job is far more important than flapping their gums about politics. Soldiers, in other words, are soldiers, and that is exactly what The Hurt Locker depicts them to be.
Is the movie antiwar? In part — can any serious war movie not be a little antiwar? War is gruesome business. In a counterinsurgency campaign such as the one depicted so convincingly and ferociously in The Hurt Locker, you don’t know whether “that guy with the cellphone” in the distance is about to detonate an explosive by punching a number. And if you should befriend a little kid selling videos in the markets, you don’t know whether that friendship could cost the boy his life.
Yet the movie, dubbed one of the ten best conservative films of the decade (“strikingly patriotic” and “a tribute to the heroism” of soldiers) by blogger Nile Gardiner of Britain’s the Telegraph, is also fair about war, making it clear amid the haze and chaos how cowardly and cold-blooded the insurgency is, how disgusting is their use of innocent people such as the boy who befriends Sgt. James.
And the most salient aspect of The Hurt Locker is, despite the nerve-shattering level of tension it portrays, the clear character superiority of life as a soldier. When Sgt. James returns home to an ordinary, gray life, we see it through his eyes as trivial, lacking in challenge, devoid of heroes. Sgt. James doesn’t decide to return to the hot zone despite the risk; he returns because of the risk, because he has learned that proximity to danger in the service of a high cause is ennobling. The movie’s epigraph about war being a drug is true in a way. But isn’t love also a drug? Including love of duty, love of honor, love of country?
I don’t see The Hurt Locker as a pro-war picture (and, in interviews, Bigelow has said she hopes that people conclude that the Iraq situation is futile), but it is a resonant one. It’s refreshingly devoid of the kinds of grandstanding, make-sure-the-audience-knows-what-to-think writing that has polluted virtually every movie about the war on terror. And in honestly portraying the exhilarating aspects of one complicated soldier’s life, it may be the only Iraq film yet that you can imagine inspiring a bored young man vaguely repulsed by the indolence all around him to say, “I get it. I see the insanity, but I also see the glory. I’m going down to the recruiter’s office tomorrow.”