I caught the matinee showing of The Hurt Locker at E Street this afternoon and since I’m on this movie kick and can’t do something for two hours without analyzing it, here’s what I’ve got.
The Hurt Locker has been hoarding good reviews that proclaim it as an honest, no- holds-barred portrayal of the Iraq War. Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break!) tries not to pull punches and succeeds for the most part. The story is about Staff Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner) and his teammates JT Sanborn (the underrated Anthony Mackie) and Owen Elridge (Brian Geraghty). The three of them comprise an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) squad whose job it is to do anything explosive-related, mostly disarming bombs. I’ve never been to Iraq and can’t comment on how accurate all the military stuff is, but Brandon Friedman has and he thinks it was weak.
As you’d imagine, there’s a certain amount of tension built into the premise and Bigelow handles it well, not having everything blow up when it’s supposed to, but enough to keep the viewer worried through the whole film. The acting is very good, Renner manages to make his character so cliché that it feels like a real person turning himself into a cliché – he actually says “I’m getting too old for this,” and a superior officer calls him a “wild man” repeatedly. I half-expected the officer to ask for James’s badge and gun. Mostly it’s a really good action movie that pushes the “I’m a loose-canon badass” to it’s real conclusion which is: “I’m so psychologically damaged that I’ve developed a casual disregard for the value of human life.”
But what I really want to write about, and what I just couldn’t keep out of my mind through the film, is the portrayal of Iraqis. There are two Iraqis with names in the movie. One is a small boy who sells DVDs and is a device to provoke James’s semi-predictable utter breakdown. The other is a professor who is on screen for a total of thirty seconds before James bolts out of the house. All the rest fall into three categories: robotic killers, pitiful victims and orientalist merchants. There are a total of zero conversations between a soldier and an adult Iraqi that don’t involve yelling “Get on the ground!” The viewer sees most of the Iraqis through a rifle scope.
I kept returning in my head to Chinua Achebe’s landmark critique of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In his essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Achebe decries the role of Africans in Conrad’s novel. I was thinking of block-quoting, but y’all should just go read it. His basic complaint – and I think it’s a good one – is that Conrad uses Africans as a backdrop on which to display the mental anguish of the colonizers. What Conrad never mentions is that the real victims of colonialism aren’t the colonizers, but the colonized. Similarly in Hurt Locker, the victims of the war seem to be American soldiers, who were really only there to deprogram bombs anyway.
This becomes especially apparent in the depictions of mourning. When the team visits the site of a remote bombing minutes after, there are Iraqis running around screaming and crying on their knees, their anguished shouts pointed to the sky. The jaded Americans, on the other hand, grieve their losses in personal stoic ways in scenes full of pathos. Anyone who thinks Americans, even soldiers, are more jaded about death than Iraqis has their script flipped.
I don’t claim to have seen all the film representations of the Iraq War and I eagerly await counter-examples in the comments, but this seems to be a pattern. In order for Americans to depict Iraqis as complete, human characters, we have to place ourselves in their shoes, imagine what we would do in a similar situation. I don’t think a lot of Americans on either side of the aisle would like to think of themselves as the type that would greet an invading army as liberators. We’re the kind of people who like to think we’d pick up weapons and fight them off. Unfortunately, this would mean sympathetic depictions of insurgents, which we surely can’t have. The result is a film about the mental and physical anguish of being part of an occupying army rather than the suffering of being occupied. It’s not that soldiers aren’t victims of the war, they certainly are, it’s that they aren’t proportionally victims to the degree that they’re portrayed as such. The Hurt Locker, despite being a hell of a movie, treats Iraqis like props in an American psychological drama, when they really are the vast majority of victims of a horrific war.
Let this be a warning to the children out there: if you read too much, you will never enjoy anything again. Ever. Also, I apologize for the excess of movie blogs, I’ll return to my natural habitat tomorrow when I finish Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. I promise to find a way to connect it to Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker piece. Stay tuned.