Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker has received a great deal of praise for being the best of a recent spate of films on the War in Iraq. Outside of the praise she receives for being a woman at the helm of an action picture (praise I find insulting, by the way), most of the good notices are focused on two fronts: the complex portrayal of the psychological damage on the everyday soldier wrought by his exposure to war and, second, the technical proficiency and command on display in the film. Either of these elements, taken on its own, could undeniably contribute to a first-rate film on any war. However, when combined here, it’s my view that the second element works against the first, so that rather than creating a complex portrait of soldiers at war, we instead get a confused film that delivers a strange mixture of messages. For those who haven’t yet seen the film, be warned! Spoilers lurk throughout.
The first element of the movie receiving praise is the psychological portrait of the soldier at war. To this end, the film opens with a quotation from Christopher Hedges, former war reporter turned author and speaker, a quote that ends with the words “war is a drug.” Despite my objections to a film telling the viewer what it is about before a single image even graces the screen, thus limiting its overall impact, I am sympathetic to Hedges’ point on this issue (his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning has been formative for me in this regard).
The movie goes on to illustrate the psychological damage done to soldiers, even as they inflict physical damage on the landscape and people around them. It’s clear that each of the three main characters, as well as several supporting players, will have significant issues to overcome should they make it back to their old lives. In particular, the film displays the damaged psychological state of Sgt. James, a man whose proficiency at his job actually makes him increasingly reckless, violent, and disconnected from his unit. He constantly disregards procedure within his unit, participates in what looks to be a mini-Fight Club, and disobeys specific rules to pursue his own personal goals. The implication in the film is that James has come to this state because of his commitment to his extremely dangerous job as a bomb tech.
On another level, the film is an undeniable technical achievement. And while this factor is low on my list of “elements I most look forward to in a movie,” The Hurt Locker includes genuine thrills and back-breaking tension. The best example of this is a sniper scene that takes place mid-film, in which Bigelow makes expert use of contrasting sight lines, views from both the naked eye and several different scopes, revealing just enough to ratchet up the intensity and drawing out the scene in a most satisfying way. In the rest of the film, two other technical elements play a significant role: slow motion and music. The opening sequence makes ample use of the former, while the closing sequence makes a surprising use of a latter.
When an IED explodes in the opening scene, Bigelow shoots the blast from several different angles (something she’ll do throughout the film). However, much of the detonation plays in slow motion, so the audience gets the pleasure of watching the cool explosion go off. In fact, one character had even predicted how it would explode, and so when Bigelow slows everything down, we get to compare that prediction to the actual reality. Slowing down the film at this point may increase our horror at the destruction it causes, but it certainly allows us the opportunity to enjoy the show. There’s a kind of beauty even in moments of destruction, and the slow motion points our focus toward the blast in all its heinous glory. It’s a little like watching a mushroom cloud from afar: the beauty of the cloud is striking in relation to the destruction emanating from its center.
In the final sequence of the movie, Bigelow pumps up the volume of an already loud heavy metal song and plays it over several shots picturing one soldier’s return to Iraq. The song is a strong contrast to the dark and disturbing sound of one playing when we first meet Sgt. James in his room. That song sounded like a man deep in the throes of a battle within himself. The song at the end of the film, on the other hand, could legitimately be playing on a U.S. Army recruitment commercial that might hypothetically run at the theater before The Hurt Locker screened. These are powerful sequences, to be sure, but their place in the larger scope of the film is a big part of my problem with it.
On a basic level of narrative, the film works as a kind of cautionary tale about the dangers of war to our own soldiers, dangers that extend far beyond bullets and bombs. However, when put together with the technical elements of the film, the mixed message overwhelms it. On the one hand, we’re to be disturbed by the reckless behavior of Sgt. James, yet as he walks proudly off the helicopter back onto Iraqi soil, with “music to pump you up” blaring, I felt like the filmmakers wanted me to sit back and say, “Awesome!”
Disturbing or awesome. Which is it? I know Chris Hedges knows. And I know I know. I wish I had any confidence that the filmmakers knew.