A film that few people wanted to see and that even fewer people actually saw won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director for 2009.  For the first time in the eight decades of the Academy Awards, a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, won for being a Director.  As Barbra Streisand said, “The time has finally come.”  On sheer conviction alone, Bigelow got some of us to watch the war no one wants to remember.  As the Iraqis vote and struggle to set up a fledging democracy, we wonder, was George Bush right to force representative government upon people who had not asked for democracy?  Most people  simply wrote off the Iraq War, along with all of its ambiguities, and stayed away from this film.  But they should try The Hurt Locker. Unlike other films about Iraq, the film does not attempt to answer questions or to take sides.  We are left with a deeper unanswered question why do we make war?

The phrase itself, “make war,” is an interesting one, suggesting that we chose to create the conditions that make war possible.  Certainly “making war” is the exact description of the war upon Iraq.  This war, unlike the Second World War, was not thrust upon us, we made it; we forced it into being.  America “made up” this war.  America “made up” the reasons for the war.  This war was “made” in America.  The Iraq War was a “made” war, “made” just as a movie is made. Through the main character, The Hurt Locker suggests that we make war because we need to. But apart from that possible insight, The Hurt Locker is opaque, allowing for little interpretation.  Unlike Green Zone, we are never allowed to get outside the tight little story.  There is no omnipotent position from which the audience can judge the American presence in Iraq.  We are simply existentially there.

And the movie simply begins.  The Hurt Locker is about a bomb squad, tasked with dealing with the IUDs, the many bombs laid at the feet of the occupying force.  That the job is dangerous and deadly is underscored in the opening with the death of the briefly glimpsed Guy Pearce.  The eye of the storm is his replacement, Jeremy Renner, an expert at defusing and disarming ticking bombs.  The closest counterpart to The Hurt Locker is Danger UXB, an excellent 1979 BBC series, featuring a group of engineers who defused the unexploded bombs during the Battle of Britain.  Starring Anthony Andrews, post-Brideshead Revisited, the series was heroic without heroics.  While the act of defusing in UXB is all stiff upper lip and the officers are business-like, The Hurt Locker is about an entirely different kind of soldier.  Another good analogy would be The War Lover (1962), starring Steve McQueen as the kind of man who is a genuine “war lover.”  Whether or not war makes these men or whether or not war finds these men is not clear.  The point is that, for some men, war is their destiny.  One should probably distinguish between the “war lover” and the mercenary.  The mercenary, as depicted by Leon Golub in his powerful series of the 1980s, is a man without a country or conscience, a ruthless and soulless thug for hire, working today for Blackwater.  The “war lover” is an adrenalin junkie, flying high on the kind of danger that only a war can provide.  The mercenary needs to fight, because the mercenary needs to be violent.  The war lover thrives on the thrill.

Kathryn Bigelow has always been surprisingly good at putting the spotlight on such men.  Point Break (1991) features Patrick Swayze as a surfing bank robber who would rather die than allow Keanu Reeves to take him in. the apparent motive for robbing banks is to fund surfing safaris, but, Patrick Swayze’s character gets off on the danger.  While the plot is ridiculous and great fun, the point of the film is male bonding behavior, lovingly portrayed by a woman.  Bigelow is an unseen presence in the movie.  Although she does not comment on the immaturity of her male protagonists, the bromance is foregrounded.  Patrick and Keanu beat up on each other and play macho games in this buddy movie.  The only girl, Lori Petty, is a bit macho herself and is peripheral to the major love story between the men.  What is remarkable about Point Break and The Hurt Locker is not that these two films are at all comparable in quality—they are  not—but that a woman has succeeded so effortlessly and so naturally at showing the real love that men bear for each other.

Except for the presence of Bigelow, The Hurt Locker is inhospitable to women and the circle of men is tight, as the small bomb squad must trust each other completely.  The viewer feels as if the director has penetrated a closed relationship and reveals the candid moments that are so important to unit cohesion.  As Barbara Kruger said (to men), “You create intricate rituals to touch each other.”  The men of the bomb squad must punch each other and get drunk together in order to express their feelings.  It has been said that men do not fight for an abstract entity, like “Their Country,” but for each other.  They dare not display cowardice to one another, so they are forced to play brave. But some men do to have to play at being brave.  These men cannot be called brave, because they do not fear death as the rest of us.  These men have very special needs, the need to risk, the need to be in danger, or some need that has no real name.  These men could be suicidal, or they could be life-affirming or they could be self-actualizing.  The Hurt Locker is about one of these men, Jeremy Renner, who is clearly different from the other men in his squad.  They just want to stay alive.  But without the danger or thrills, Renner’s character  is no one and nothing.  Without war, he does not exist.  Towards the end of the film, he goes home when his tour of duty is over, and we see him diminished.  “Staff Sergeant William James” dwindles from the Master Defuser and Risk Taker to the anonymous husband and father who goes to the grocery store to select cereal.  On the battlefield, he is alive; at home he is dead.

What is to be done with men like him?  He needs war to be, to exist.  The film ends with Renner marching off the plane on the tarmac of the Bagdad airport.  He has come back to life.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

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