The First Decent Iraq-War Movie
At times during The Hurt Locker, a remarkable new movie about the war in Iraq, I began to wonder: Who wrote this, Thucydides or Xenophon?
Actually, it was written by Mark Boal, a young journalist who logged time in Baghdad in 2004 (when the war was at its worst), hanging out with members of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team. These are the men who play Rubik’s Cube to the death with infernal insurgent devices, figuring out solutions to the puzzle-encoded bombs buried in garbage piles and dung heaps on the ancient city’s decaying streets, all the while encased in suits that resemble nothing so much as the old pre–scuba diver’s rig, clumsy armor that often proves to be of dubious value. Their universe is bounded by game theory: Which wire do I clip? They know that if they cut the wrong wire or someone punches a certain number into a cell phone, the world around them instantly turns into a flash of brute energy. It’s not fun work; people die very easily.
The Hurt Locker, fashioned by Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow, recalls ancient Greek antecedents because its evocation of pure war is so gripping and it feels almost too real. You feel the weight of the sand in the air, the density of the sweat bead running down your nose, the slippery frictionless flank of a pair of needle-nose pliers standing between the self and obliteration. It’s war as sensual experience. But it’s actually another kind of throwback, a cinematic one—a retro genre piece in a long-forgotten tradition called the “unit tribute.”
Unit tributes were a staple of World War II, from Howard Hawks’s Air Force to such postwar docudramas as Go for Broke, Battleground, and The Red Ball Express (the Brits checked in with Cockleshell Heroes and The Dam Busters). Probably the last one was John Wayne’s The Green Berets, released to shouts of outrage in 1968.
The gist was the same. The men found the power to commit to hazardous duty selflessly through identification with the larger entity: the division, wing, flotilla, regiment, battalion, company, squad, whatever. By absorbing the unit’s traditions, by accepting its wisdom, by endorsing its mores, they found within themselves a strength to soldier on in the face of incredible hardship.
The Hurt Locker is less unit–explicit than many of its predecessors, as it conspicuously avoids putting a three-man bomb-disposal team in an identifiable military structure responsible to an officer and responsive to general orders. In fact, it isolates crew members almost existentially, rendering their support and intelligence system almost as shadowy nuances. There’s no moment of drunken revelry in which the three guys hoist their brews to the great old 3423rd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Battalion, the fabled “Bomb Busters,” with their cute goat-in-a-steel-jockstrap-and-space-helmet mascot.
Boal and Bigelow know what the 40s filmmakers didn’t, which is that expression of such sentiments always plays false; the movies go all Hollywood-back-lot in such moments. Instead, by isolating the men of The Hurt Locker, they make it clear what motivates them: professionalism and some commitment to an almost indefinable thing called duty. These guys desperately want to be all they can be. They are committed to the soldier’s trade, they feel the need to live up to its highest standards, and when they fail, they are crushed by self–recrimination.
The movie is structured as a countdown, as the tour of duty of the hazily ID’d “Bravo Company” approaches its end. It chronicles seven ordeals by imminent detonation by the team, newly headed by Staff Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner in an extraordinary performance) after the loss in the film’s first few seconds of the original team leader. It watches the intensity of the defusing sequences themselves, as James, in his suit, tries to decode the circuitry before him while teammates Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spec. 4 Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) assist and provide perimeter security. But it also-watches as two lesser soldiers try to deal with the staff sergeant’s natural aggression—James is a true war dog, driven to take risks, one of those 5 percenters whom the generals say actually win battles—while feeling somewhat diminished by it.
In a sense, this is the soldier’s truest dilemma, but also the nation’s. Surely, there’s a metaphorical drama here. Do we commit to the warrior’s bravado and let him lead us, even knowing that he’s braver and stronger and that we are not up to his standards? That was the question really asked by the Iraq war, which the movie encapsulates without overselling. (In fact, nearly all the movie’s admiring critics simply refused to see this.) James is George W. Bush: he believes, he’s willing to risk, his eye is on the bigger picture. He doesn’t think or care much about himself. Next to him, the others feel inadequate, and they conceive petty hatred, derision, ridicule.
But James doesn’t notice. Maybe he’s too concentrated, maybe he’s too shallow, maybe he gets a secret thrill out of tweaking their ordinariness. And his guts and commitment seduce them in the end, even if they fear the dark places he leads them. He makes them into the last thing they want to be: warriors at his level. Complaining the whole time, they even track down and take out an insurgent IED team.
Sgt. Sanborn is the movie’s pivotal figure. He hates James at first and even has a moment where by pushing a simple button, he can destroy him. You feel the temptation, just as you feel the explosions, which, by the way, are exquisitely expressive and unique. But the movie’s internal drama is set in Sanborn’s heart, as he learns ultimately that James may seem to be a shallow redneck with cowboy affectations, but in the end it was his higher wisdom that prevailed, his strength that abided, his courage that won the war.
In one form, perhaps without meaning to, The Hurt Locker documents, to use the title of another famous war picture (minus its snarky irony), How I Won the War. Its answer: with unbelievable guts, unbelievable commitment, unbelievable victory over internal fear, and unbelievable professionalism. It’s a tribute, really, to the brave young men who persevered while so many artistic types were unspooling garbage like Brian de Palma’s Redacted—an account of an atrocity that generalized from a single squad to an entire theater comprising more than 130,000 troops. (De Palma is something of an atrocity groupie; he also made Casualties of War, about a Vietnam platoon leader who orders his men to rape a teenage girl.)
But what makes The Hurt Locker so fresh isn’t its genre roots nor, really, the fine performances that drive it, its makers’ attention to detail and conspicuous gifts for evoking military culture, wartime chaos, the mysteries of the country in which the fighting is taking place, or even its metaphorical implication. It’s the movie’s concept of the soldiers themselves.
Whatever they are, they are not victims. They are not reluctant recruits, pawns in the hands of some large, impersonal force, fodder for the arch-demons Bush and Cheney and lesser neocon demons. Despite their overarching fears, they embrace the opportunity and use it to express themselves.
And this is what distinguishes The Hurt Locker from the other Hollywood essays on the war. Unlike Redaction, Home of the Brave, and Stop-Loss, it doesn’t see its soldiers as tragic heroes, and the movie isn’t set up to display their crucifixion, to weepy liberal bromides and violin music.
The contrast is most stark with 2007’s In the Valley of Elah, since it was based on an article by the same Mark Boal. Unlike The Hurt Locker, Elah is agitprop. The title alone gives one pause: the valley of Elah was the site of David’s victory over Goliath. Clearly the director-writer Paul Haggis (an Oscar winner for Crash) thinks he is documenting the moral malaise that enabled plucky little Iraq to topple the American Goliath. Despite Elah’s fondness for such hideously overwrought symbols as American flags displayed upside down in the universal Mayday signal—the movie’s closing image—and its litany of cameos by Hollywood leftists who earnestly want to “make a statement,” the movie fails utterly to close its argument with anything approaching conviction. Constructed as a murder mystery at a Southern military post among some returning Iraq vets, it means to sell as inevitable their degradation by an illegal war, even though the war wasn’t illegal.
Tommy Lee Jones plays a retired military police sergeant (a helpful coincidence, no?) who travels to his son’s post when that son, himself a veteran of the campaign, is found brutally murdered. Despite his connection to the case, he somehow manages to take over the investigation being run by a police detective played by Charlize Theron, whose victimization at the hands of roughhouse men in her detective bureau the movie is at pains to emphasize. (I should note that both Jones and Theron are excellent in the film. That, plus Haggis’s gift for evoking military culture on a big domestic base, makes the movie far more entertaining than its crude propagandizing might otherwise suggest.) In any event, the plot is tormented to reveal that, of course, the killers of the boy are his comrades in arms, the point being that they have been so degraded by their war experience, they find it easy to break the bonds of comradeship that sustain units in combat. It is, as Boal’s original article testifies, based on an actual incident.
But really, so what? Wars are -giant, messy things, and the armies that fight them are giant, messy things. Haggis isn’t making a -movie about war; he’s making a movie about this war. (No one would ever confuse his work with that of Thucydides.) Yet he’s unable to suggest a unique component to the war in Iraq that made such an atrocity inevitable. In fact, combat-stress syndrome isn’t a function of a war’s politics, its origin in neocon theoretics, or what Donald Rumsfeld had for lunch on a particular afternoon: It happens in any war and it happens in every war. It happens to cops, it happens to emergency-service workers, it happened to -civilians who pitched in on 9/11. It’s a component of human behavior at a certain point on a bell curve, not Bush’s evil.
That’s pretty much the case of all the Iraq-war movies; they seem entirely atrocity-driven, based on the conceit that combat turns men axiomatically evil and that evil is to be taken as a surrogate for the evil policies that spawned them. In an odd way, they’re more like the first-generation war movies of World War II, which sold cheesy agitprop for Our Side. The fact that Our Side was better than Their Side didn’t make the movies much more than patriotic rabble-rousers meant to stir a civilian audience to believe that the Japanese language should only be spoken in Hell. Such movies should be looked upon as kitsch at best, at worst a part of the warmaking process that was crude but necessary, though today no one would argue that a tub-thumper like In the -Valley of Elah was anything near necessary.
The other anti-Iraq-war movies don’t get what Bigelow and Boal express so subtly: wars are lost by victims; they’re won by soldiers.