Hurt Locker: The technologically insulated American at war (and cinema)


After hearing so much about Hurt Locker and its Best Picture award (I’ve always been intrigued by war movies), I thought I’d give it a whirl. For starters, this ain’t Apocalypse Now! or Full Metal Jacket, let alone even close to some of the better, more complex war films that delve into the distorted and demented politics of its leaders. In particular I’m thinking of Major Dundee by Sam Peckinpah, which is set during the so-called Indian Wars. Hurt Locker also lacks the psychological nuance of something like Terrence Malick’s brilliant The Thin Red Line.

Hurt Locker is neither adventurous nor cutting edge, and not much better aesthetically than a TV show like CSI. Ultimately it’s a really boring movie with bad dialogue that poorly fleshes out a series of tension and release sequences that draw on music video and video game aesthetics. It is full of cliches about poor American soldiers who cannot make sense of a chaotic environment not of their choosing as they enter the labyrinth of a surreal war landscape populated by an alien Other. Framed as an “American tragedy,” once again an invaded country becomes a purification drama for Hollywood’s liberal consciousness.

So I hope no one thinks Hurt Locker is a serious anti-war movie, because if this is what passes these days as war criticism, then the depoliticization of Iraq has truly succeeded to permeate the pop culture landscape.

Just compare, for example, the Americans–self-identified as “USA friendlies”– versus the zero-dimensional Iraqis who seem to have no history or personality beyond the usual tropes and stereotypes (see my list below). The only insight into how the other side thinks comes from an Iraqi professor who is allowed three lines of dialogue, one being that he is pleased to have the CIA in his home. Moreover, the film forces you to sympathize with the military every time they kill Iraqis. Army recruiters most love that.

The only hint of the film’s consciousness comes at the end of the movie. We transition from a closing shot in Iraq with kids throwing stones at the Americans to the returning soldier’s existential crisis at home when he faces a wall of cereal in a market– recalling the clash’s prescient protest song, “Lost in the Supermarket.” In the end, cleaning rain gutters is not as thrilling as war, so this middle class soldier–a cypher for our system– has to go back to Iraq because now he is addicted to the adrenaline of war–like our consumer economy. The last shot has him transformed as a technologically shielded man who lurches suicidally towards another bomb. Like our militarized system, he has lost his humanity.

Though the last shot is a pretty strong image, compare it to some of the dialog when two soldiers complain about the war. Soldier 1: “How do you deal with it?” Soldier 2: “I just don’t think about it.” Wow, heavy shit.

If “I fucking hate this place” and “Let’s get out of this fucking desert” are the strongest statements the film’s characters can make, then Hollywood is as spineless and addicted to the military as the Democrats. Because in the end, though Hollywood cast a guilt vote to make this their best picture, in the industry the war machine will continue to march unabated as a primary partner in the development of animation and other block-buster special effects technology to be prototyped for war training VR.

Ultimately I concur with Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles (a much better and more introspective book/picture than Hurt Locker), who wrote that there is no such thing as an anti-war movie:

There is talk that many films are antiwar, that the message is war is inhumane and look what happens when you train young American men to fight and kill, they turn their fighting and killing everywhere, they ignore their targets and desecrate the entire country, shooting fully automatic, forgetting they were trained to aim. But actually, Vietnam War films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended… [soldiers] watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrate the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his real first fuck. It doesn’t matter how many Mr. and Mrs. Johnsons are antiwar—the actual killers who know how to use the weapons are not. (pp. 6-7)

It seems to me that the film’s Best Picture award is driven by a sense of shame about the war– a need to feel and say something about it, but even in the Obama years no one (that is, anyone in a position of power) is willing to stand up and call the Iraq war for what it is: a crime against humanity. So when a dramatic film can make this case, then it will certainly get my vote. But I’m not holding out hope. At least not for it to be made by Hollywood.

Here is a quick an dirty laundry list of unoriginal war film tropes from Hurt Locker:

  • Inane dialogue as indication that somewhat will die (also used in horror films).
  • Kid Iraqi (“Beckham”–yawn) who learns American black slang (and sells DVDs) as symbol of the hybridized, Utopian future of Iraq.
  • Zero-dimensional Iraqis except as The Horrible Evil Enemy Without Any Consciousness (unlike the technocratic warriors of America who kill with high technology but also have feelings of guilt).
  • A cameo of the sadistic yahoo commander (we only get a momentary glimpse of him).
  • War-stressed, PTSD soldier who doesn’t have the capacity (or stomach) to “hold it in,” and of course is the one character who gets wounded right before he is supposed to finish his tour.
  • Veteran perverted by horrors of war harbors an idiosyncratic secret obsession.
  • Strange and creepy intellectual analyst whose healing powers are over-shadowed by his naivety and lack of warrior purification (and of course is killed).
  • Depersonalized death/massacre of the other/enemy.
  • Spectacularized violence as cleansing ritual for do-gooder Americans.