See also: this post.
The Hurt Locker left a bad taste in my mouth when I first watched it a two months ago, but I can't say that I hated it. The more I thought about it, however, the less I liked it.
One of the film's strengths as a suspense film is its ability to map out a cohesive geography where everything becomes dangerous, every person suspect. Much of the tension in the film is derived from this, and the viewer easily sees the situation from the soldiers' point of view. A man is pulling out a cell-phone... is he about to detonate a bomb? You have 10 seconds to decide. In such an environment we see the impossibility of correctly sussing out danger in every encounter, and the paranoia this creates becomes tangible. This atmosphere makes viewers more understanding and accepting of civilian casualties in war.
Early in the film one of the soldiers, Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), is reluctant to shoot an Iraqi who's holding a device. Another soldier, played by Guy Pierce, is killed as a result. Geraghty's character is shown, in this moment and in others, to be the most emotional and reluctant soldier in the entire film, and for these qualities he is portrayed as weak and unstable, largely due to the stress imposed on him by not wanting to take innocent life. In war, to be cautious is to be dead. If you want to guarantee your highest chance for survival, shoot first and ask questions later. Your own personal survival is, or so we are told by the film, the most important thing. (Or, as the Collateral Murder video shows us, shoot first and, well, shoot first! is the most important thing.)
The Hurt Locker shows us a world where taking innocent (foreign) life is not just acceptable, but necessary.1 It's interesting that, of the three main characters, only the one played by Geraghty gets hurt. He pays for the sins of Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), the most bold, borderline insane, character in the entire film (and the films protagonist) with a bullet in the leg.
"On the evening of April 28, 2003, a crowd of 200 people defied a curfew imposed by the Americans and gathered outside a secondary school used as a military HQ to demand its reopening. Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne stationed on the roof of the building fired upon the crowd, resulting in the deaths of 17 civilians and the wounding of over 70. The events leading up to the event are disputed. American forces claim they were responding to gunfire from the crowd, while the Iraqis involved deny this version, although conceding rocks were thrown at the troops. A protest against the killings two days later was also fired upon by US troops resulting in two more deaths." --Wikipedia.
The film is based around a bomb disposal unit, and it makes sense that much of the geography consists of ruined buildings and rubble. This immediately gives the impression that the buildings have been destroyed by insurgent bombs even when we know this isn't the case. Not showing the bombings done by the United States, responsible for most of the crumbling landscape, gives a false impression of the unit sent there to disarm bombs. It suggests that our military was sent there to save the Iraqi's from the insurgents without hinting at the irony of a bomb disposal unit sent to disarm bombs, many of which wouldn't even be there if the military hadn't been sent to begin with. This idea is brought forth more overtly when an Iraqi man, strapped against his will with some kind of metal suicide jacket containing bombs and a timer, pleads for his life to have the soldiers disarm it. (The contraption -- and the set up -- feel as though it would be more at home somewhere in the Saw franchise.) This scene makes no sense at all and makes me question whether any such device has ever been used.2 The entire idea seems absurd since the contraption is so visibly obvious. Imagine walking down the street with a suicide suit on when you could just as easily have bombs hidden under your jacket. This scene exists only to show the insurgents as barbaric villains, differentiating them from the ordinary Iraqi citizens we are trying to save (and who don't want us there). The problem with this is that many ordinary Iraqi citizens are the very ones deciding to fight against us. As an Iraqi said in the documentary Meeting Resistance3: "Suppose Iraq invaded America. And an Iraqi soldier was on a tank passing through an American street waving his gun at the people, threatening them, raiding and thrashing houses. Would you accept that? That is why no Iraqi can accept occupation and don't be surprised by their reactions. Their attitudes are normal."
Near the end of the film, Jeremy Renner's character walks down the aisles of a supermarket with his wife. He goes to the cereal aisle to pick something out and is confronted with dozens of choices. When he dismantles a bomb and is forced to choose between the red, blue, green, and black wires, he's much more comfortable. The choice means something. In the supermarket he doesn't know which cereal to pick -- the red, blue, brown or yellow -- because in the end it doesn't really matter.
Finally he decides on something and then goes back to place it in the cart. This scene juxtaposed with the previous war footage is interesting, and I thought the film was going to take a major turn and make a bold comment on consumerism. Ran Prieur, commenting on why we watch films like The Road Warrior for entertainment, said: "That's how bad our own world is -- that we fantasize about a world with war, hunger, and no trees, just because we'd get to be outside all day fighting for something that matters, instead of cowering in sterile buildings rearranging abstractions." The Hurt Locker could have done something with this, turning the "war is a drug" concept onto the viewer. (Why do we watch action films?) Instead the film shows that life is dull to Renner because he's hooked on war, overriding any ideas about how our own lives have come to feel meaningless. The hard rock music starts up, and the army recruiting commercial begins. Renner walks in slow motion off the helicopter, ready to return to combat. DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?
Jonathan Rosenbaum reacted against the idea that The Hurt Locker is apolitical: "This is a film whose most courageous character is shown to be myopic to the point of insanity when it comes to perceiving Iraqi people in his midst — or at least one Iraqi kid in particular whom he supposedly knows and has some fondness for. He’s so convinced that this kid has been killed by a terrorist that he can’t even see the kid greeting him. This kind of blindness surely implies something about American perceptions of the Iraqi people, the ones whom American soldiers have allegedly been fighting for. It even, I would argue, implies something political." I didn't see the scene that way myself. I thought that Renner, once realizing that the kid was alive, ignored him because he didn't want to feel what it was like to lose him for a second time. He wanted to keep his distance and not get to know any Iraqis because the emotional investment was too large. And, as Brian Geraghty's character shows us, too dangerous. In the film's insular world, this expression of compassion would open Renner up to the possibility of being killed (Rambo never dies), which also goes back to the idea that American life trumps non-American life. And yes, Renner's character is myopic and not exactly made out to look the best -- he's both a hero and an anti-hero -- but he's still a fearless, tough soldier who can seemingly do no wrong. Geraghty's character is made out to be somewhat culpable for his psychologist's death, but Renner's, as I mentioned, only for accidentally putting a bullet in Geraghty's leg. And the film seems to suggest that this bullet is not only Geraghty paying for Renner's negligence, but also Geraghty paying for what the film perceives to be Geragthy's own negligence: the sins of emotion, reluctance, compassion and empathy, which lead to fear.
1. "Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into battle," one of the soldiers in the Collateral Murder video says. "That's right," another soldier responds. And of course these children were in the van that came to give aid to the dead and wounded, the dead and wounded who were walking with two Reuters reporters... "After demands by Reuters, the incident was investigated and the U.S. military concluded that the actions of the soldiers were in accordance with the law of armed conflict and its own 'Rules of Engagement'."
2. I haven't found any evidence to support it. The closest thing was this piece about a 6 year old, but even in that story there is no concrete evidence. Furthermore, it was a child. It would be pretty tough to trick an adult into wearing a bomb (though maybe not a "stupid Iraqi").
3. I don't recommend this documentary unless you're someone who doesn't already know that ordinary Iraqi citizens are becoming insurgents because of our presence. This point is all the film has to offer, and it isn't particularly well made or artistic.