The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow

The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Tom Jennings is relieved that this film avoids lazy liberal moralising in exploring the mundane traumas of courage under fire.

Improvised Explosive Death-Drive. Film review – Tom Jennings
The heart might sink at the prospect of yet another Iraq war film based on a verité account by an embedded journalist, but Kathryn Bigelow’s viscerally scintillating The Hurt Locker (2008) is distinctive in several respects. While thoroughly and (un)comfortably enjoyable as superior action fodder, it also subtly stylises the dire individual and interpersonal corollaries even of a military function which seems most humanistic. Her Improvised Exposive Device-disposal squad are at once ordinary and heroic. Veteran communications officer J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) obsesses about rules to stave off fear, rookie guard Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) maintains alertness via a veritable bundle of neuroses visibly vying for attention, and bomb expert William James (Jeremy Renner) approaches his task with a simultaneously exhilarating and infuriating blend of surgical precision and cowboy bravado after his predecessor has succumbed to the fiendish bodgery of insurgent tactics.
James initially impresses his new colleagues with almost supernatural success. However, his lordly devil-may-care attitude increasingly imperils everyone in the vicinity, and they eventually even contemplate assassinating him to improve their own chances. Superbly rendered set-pieces count down the final month of their tour of duty, stitched together with interludes illustrating their variously vexed relationships with each other, sundry locals and, most tellingly, their lives back home – running a minimal gamut from dreams of hidebound retirement to James’ distantiation from his young son compared to strong affinity with the tragically happy-go-lucky Iraqi spiv dubbed ‘Beckham’. The film’s title refers to James’ secret stash of component souvenirs, metaphorically doubling for the private and public implications of these soldiers’ anguish. His arguably necessary recklessness yields an alienated incapacity to appreciate any other kind of social project and a hankering for intensity of experience that can only be interpreted as death-wish – practically guaranteeing that the heights of their specialist training, as well as its failures, produce monsters liable to explode at any moment.
The Hurt Locker was co-produced and scripted by Mark Boal from his 2005 essay ‘The Man In The Bomb Suit’. He had already co-written Paul Haggis’ In The Valley of Elah (2007), fictionalising his earlier Playboy feature about a US infantryman murdered after returning from the attack on Baghdad in 2003 – thus showing a particular interest in the effects of modern warfare on those prosecuting it. Such themes lend themselves perfectly to Bigelow’s persistent fascination with the psychodynamics of violence, seductively spectacularised in intimate visual flayings of the wayward weaknesses of masculinity – achieved with virtuoso design and editing and vivid, hyperkinetic camerawork in generic subversions such as Near Dark (1987), Blue Steel (1989), Point Break (1991), Strange Days (1995) and, least imaginatively, in K-19: The Widowmaker (2002).* Now, the realist immediacy of Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography, effectively disorienting sound design and characteristically inspired acting, expert pacing and crafting of atmosphere boil genre cliches of attrition among bands of brothers down to basic elements among those whose work requires them to tolerate the constant threat of imminent mortality.
The director’s strategy deconstructs gendered myths and fantasies of macho mastery – specifying, condensing, and twisting the narrative strategies and conventions which sustain them throughout folklore, fairytale, classical art and contemporary media alike. Subsequently, despite focussing on extremes of conduct and context, the outcomes always speak to broader social stereotypes and standards of manly behaviour. And this take on the traditional Hollywood war film is comparably sly, as well as timely – both specifically, given favoured guerilla methods in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in general. As the UN, for example, moves towards a global militarised policing of putatively flawed governance, its footsoldiers become positioned as glorified charity workers (or vice versa, enforcing neoliberal aid arrangements) dispensing the relief of suffering. But this somehow unerringly results in the abjection of bare existence for those lucky enough to survive the beneficent neocolonial onslaught.
That this is no accident is reinforced by the consummate filmmaking here, facilitating the apparently counterintuitive insight that an equivalent existential emptiness already lurks at the core of those charged with the job – let alone ‘mission’ – of delivering the greater goods. Not that The Hurt Locker’s characters, of course, should be considered representative of actual protagonists, when emotional states get artificially segregated into separate psyches which would otherwise be expected to conflictually coexist to some degree within all concerned. Whereas the ‘humanitarian warrior’ is as simple-minded and mendacious a concept as, say, ‘ethical capitalism’ – both extracting personal value from the objectification of others. Hence the continuing allure of the adrenaline rush of exploitative violent action, where in the real world and the virtual (always an essential training-ground) the boys own adventure mentality privileges the mindless muscularity of paranoid thrills and spills to compensate for the difficult soft complexities of mature human relations. But fetishing the former to hide from the latter leaves a spiritual void parallel to the narcissistic woundedness of all addictions, including those of narcotic-, testosterone- or money-junkies. New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges famously captured the problematic at hand as “War is a drug” and, sure enough, in the film’s only hamfisted decision, this epigraph adorns its first frame – thus unfortunately diverting the attention of viewers from manifold more interesting parallels, while doubtless enhancing Oscar odds.
*see, for example, Deborah Jermyn & Sean Redmond (eds.) The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor (Wallflower Press, 2003).
The Hurt Locker is out now on DVD
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 2, January 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
www.variant.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk