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The Hurt Locker (2009)

WARNING: IMPROVISED EXPLOSIVE SPOILERS

In 10th grade history class we had to watch a short film about a soldier, a doughboy, fighting during World War I. I remember little about it except that he was handsome, died hours before peace was declared on November 11, 1918, and one of the girls in class moaned with sorrow when it happened. He was so close, so close. It’s a common trope— seen more often in police stories. The older detective getting killed days from retirement.

The makers of “The Hurt Locker,” writer Mark Boal and director Katherine Bigelow, are aware of such melodramatic tropes. From the start they give us a countdown: 37 days left; 16 days left; 2 days left. Time ticks away, like the IEDs in Iraq, and we expect an explosion. It’s a great framing device because it plays into our expectations but doesn’t deliver on them. It upends them. “The Hurt Locker” is a suspense story interested in a different kind of suspense. It’s an heroic story interested in a different kind of hero. It takes our tropes and skews them ever so slightly so we don’t quite know what we’re watching.

It skews them right from the start. The scene is familiar: a dusty street in Baghdad, 2004. Delta Company arrives and sets a bot (a small, droid-like robot) in motion to uncover and then disarm an IED. But the bot malfunctions and the star of the movie, Sgt. Matt Thompson, who looks remarkably like Guy Pearce, puts on “the suit,” reminiscent of astronaut gear, and goes to work disarming it himself. Several Iraqis are watching from the sidelines and one of them pulls out a cellphone. Immediately Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) leaps into action, yelling orders at both Sgt. Thompson (to get away from the IED) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who advances on the man with weapon drawn, yelling at him to put down the cellphone. In the audience I’m thinking, “Aren’t they overreacting?” But they’re actually underreacting. Most movies give away so much, in such a simplistic fashion, that courses of action are obvious. Not Boal and Bigelow. We in the audience are in the same situation as the men in the movie. We don’t know citizen from terrorist, and the guy with the cellphone is a terrorist who uses the cellphone to detonate the IED. As Sgt. Thompson is knocked over by the blast, one sees, or thinks one sees, blood splatter in the glass of his helmet. Is he wounded? How badly? A scene later we get our answer: He’s dead. That was Guy Pearce, and he’s not the star of the movie. The star of the movie, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), arrives to replace him.

Within minutes we’re back in the same situation—IED in the middle of a dusty, Baghdad road—but the caution Sgt. Thompson and Sanborn exercised is tossed away by James. He ignores the bot. He straps on the suit. Then he walks down that Iraqi road less like a clumsy astronaut than with the swagger and purpose of an All-Star walking out to centerfield. He disarms one device, then follows the wires until, in the shot captured on the movie poster, he uncovers half-a-dozen live IEDs encircling him. It’s a horrific moment for us but he almost seems delighted. Urged to flee by Sgt. Sanborn, he instead sits down and disarms them all, then walks back to the HUMVEE and enjoys a quiet cigarette.

The epigraph at the beginning of “The Hurt Locker” is a quote from New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges that war is a drug, and that’s the case for James. He’s an adrenaline junkie. He gets high off danger. He’s also good at his job. Most of us gravitate toward what we’re good at, and James just happens to be good at something that could kill him at any second. How good? After he takes off the suit to disarm a complex car bomb (“If I die, I want to die comfortable”), a nearby colonel (David Morse) corrals him, commends his courage, and asks how many bombs he’s disarmed. He deflects the answer. He’s asked again. “873, sir,” he says. Then the colonel asks him what’s the best way to disarm one. “The way you don’t die, sir,” he responds.

Many critics have admired the supposed “heart-stopping action” of the film, and obviously there are certain tensions when watching someone defuse a bomb—particularly with friendlies or unfriendlies in the area. Why does that guy have a camera? Why aren’t those guys waving to us? Are they waving to us? Or are they waving at the cameraman? To signal him to do what? Yet after one or two IEDs, the action isn’t so heart-stopping. Either the thing blows up or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, there’s another tomorrow.

No, to me, the real drama is in the tensions between the three men. James is reckless, Sanborn is procedural, Eldridge is guilty. Eldridge knows Sgt. Thompson would be alive if he’d only shot the cellphone-carrying Iraqi, and he carries this with him every second. A desk colonel, John Cambridge (Christian Camargo), tries to get him to open up but Eldridge will have none of it. He demonstrates what’s wracking him by shooting his now-empty rifle. Dead. Click. Not-dead. Dead. Click. Not-dead. Then he guilts Cambridge into coming out of the Green Zone, where, of course, Cambridge gets killed. Yet another thing for Eldridge to carry all his life. He can’t win.

James can. He’s the hero but he’s not. At one point, while exchanging macho stomach punches, Sanborn pulls a knife on him and lays it at his throat. James leans into it. When Sanborn asks him, “Do you think I got what it takes to put on the suit?” James replies, “Hell no.” Which makes us wonder what it does take. Which delivers this answer: A lack of concern about living.

In a way the movie doesn’t go deeply enough into this tri-part relationship. I wanted to know more about Sanborn. I wanted a better discussion of procedural vs. reckless. Might not reckless actually be safer? We saw procedural at the beginning and it sure wasn’t safe for Thompson. Using the bot allowed crowds and enemies to gather. Better to act like James and walk down the street like you’re walking out to center field. Either the thing blows up or it doesn’t.

Boal and Bigelow keep playing with tropes. James befriends, in an offhand way, an Iraqi boy who sells blackmarket DVDs, but when he finds him dead on a table, cut up into a human bomb, he loses it. He goes after the boy’s boss, he breaks into a Baghdad apartment, he runs through the streets of Baghdad after midnight. Then the boy turns up. The dead boy was not his boy. We were already wondering how stable James is and this gives us a better idea. Something ain’t working there.

The best trope in the film is the countdown to being shipped home. In “The Deer Hunter” there’s that great transition where one moment our boys are partying in rural Pennsylvania and the next moment they’re in a deadly firefight in Vietnam. Boal and Bigelow do the opposite. There’s two days left, James has just met his match with a human IED (although he survives), and our boys are in their HUMVEE getting pelted with rocks from Iraqi children. The next second James is standing in an American grocery store, frozen food aisle, muzak in the background. He’s wearing civilian clothes and looks ordinary. The grocery store, particularly compared to the bright heat of Iraq, feels cold, devoid of life, awful. It feels like a dream but not a pleasant one. You feel the cultural dissonance James must feel, the dislocation, the difference between that and this. And as awful as that was, this feels worse. The fluorescent lights are not real lights, the music is not real music, the food is not real food. Everything is false. And yet this is what we’re fighting for.

It also prefigures James decision to re-up and return to Iraq. The final shot of the film is James swaggering down yet another dusty street in his suit. He could be a cowboy in the Old West. 365 Days Left. But until what? Until the deadness of the frozen-food aisle again.

It’s probably dangerous to see Sgt. James as more than just Sgt. James but I can’t help it. Is he representative? Does he represent us? In other words, is our incessant foreign adventurism the result, in part, of having a home life, and a home culture, that feels like a lie? American culture isn’t what we’re fighting for; it’s what we’re running from.

Too broad a stroke, I know. And yet. And yet.

—July 20, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard