The Hurt Locker is a very well made action film, but I am surprised at how well received it has been. What it does, it does well, but how hard is it to generate tension and excitement when your characters are armed with automatic weapons and explosives, and are intent on killing each other at close range? The ticking time bomb is the classic cinematic suspense device. It’s no wonder audiences prefer the wonderfully filmed visceral action of The Hurt Locker to Iraq War films like The Valley of Elah that involve troublesome issues of disturbed veterans home from the war.  Most people go to films to safely feel intense emotions working towards a happy ending, not to confront cognitive dissonance or to be discomforted.

Several reviewers have asserted that The Hurt Locker makes no political statement about the war in Iraq, but of course it does. All war films do. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, said in an interview that it was important to not reveal an overt political stance so that the film could concentrate on the daily life of the central characters, but she also said that “speaking as a member of the public at large . . . we want to know the actions that go on in Baghdad and how important they are.” If the actions are important, the war is important.

A war film is inherently political if it leads us to identify with, care about, worry over, and root for one side in a war, and to oppose the other. Imagine trying to convince someone that a film was not political if it told the story of three Iraqi insurgents who showed courage, loyalty to their comrades, and ingenuity in fighting Americans, while befriending Iraqi kids.

Many Americans believe, and others pretend to believe, that supporting our troops requires supporting the war. That is ludicrous, but for such people concern for American troops in a film equates then to acceptance of the war, absent any other device meant to influence audience reactions.

The Hurt Locker’s political stance is not direct advocacy of the war, so much as it is an argument against questioning the war. The film suggests that concern for the fate of American soldiers, working courageously in a difficult combat environment, is the proper level of our attention and the proper expression of our respect.  In a market economy, if some people prosper from turning those soldiers’ difficulties into entertainment, it’s OK, as long as the entertainment shows respect.

The film suggests that our proper response to the war is emotional rather than intellectual, and our allegiance is to our own people rather than to rational foreign policy or international law, even if a more rational foreign policy would have not put those Americans in danger in the first place, or would bring them home safely. The film is harmonious with the  assertion that once the troops are committed the debate must stop, at least when a Republican is president.

My own feeling is that when our troops are committed to war we citizens have a greater than usual obligation to ask whether their sacrifice and risk are justified, but I don’t expect every film to ask that question.

The Hurt Locker’s politics do not just arise passively because of the focus on an American unit. Like whole films, scenes have themes. Sometimes even in a complex film interweaving several themes, the theme of single scene really stands out. Several scenes in The Hurt Locker have clear political implications, such as the otherwise tangential scene in which a Colonel tries hard, awkwardly and ludicrously, to make friends with sullen Iraqis, and gets killed for his blundering effort at kindness. This is a war film cliché, the thoughtfully obtuse soldier getting killed because he is not tough enough. This suggests that war and war policy should be left to the tough guys. Every film that shows our enemies to be treacherous also works to weaken our expectations that our soldiers should observe the rules of engagement that the military has established.

Consider one incident in the extended scene in which the three Americans are in a waiting game with insurgents in a solitary house out in the desert. The two tough soldiers watch the house waiting for a clean shot, while the third provides rear security. The film shows us that he is the least soldierly, most self interested, and least courageous, while the other two are first rate soldiers, even by Hollywood’s unrealistic standards.

When the third soldier, Owen Eldridge, spots a goatherd and goats, he is unnerved and uncertain, and in bad need of manly leadership and a pull-yourself-together slap. He reports the goatherd and, not knowing whether that man is an insurgent or civilian, asks what to do. Our hero, SFC James, tells Eldridge, that’s your call.  For Eldridge, this is certainly the sort of dilemma and uncertainty that characterizes the occupation of Iraq, as it does all unconventional wars. There is nothing inherently political about a soldier struggling to ensure his own unit’s safety without endangering civilians like some out of control Blackwater killer. This is truly a profound and awful circumstance, transcending the particularities of any war.

Screenwriter Mark Boal had three choices about the goatherd’s intentions once Eldridge finally decides to shoot him. If the film were truly not political, but was intended to recreate the difficulties and uncertainties faced by our soldiers, Mark Boal would not show us whether or not the victim was an insurgent. In reality, after all, soldiers seldom know in such situations if they made the right choice.

If the screenwriter instead decides to reveal the identity of the Iraqi, each of his two choices  has a political implication. If the Iraqi was just a goatherd, the incident calls attention to the suffering of innocent civilians caused by the occupation, reinforcing the peace movement’s arguments. If the Iraqi was an insurgent, the incident suggests that our soldiers are smart to take no chances. Mark Boal reveals the goatherd to be an insurgent, and we in the audience are glad that the reluctant American shot him.

The Hurt Locker is a very good action film, whose director is clearly fascinated with the central figure, an action junky with no discernable political ideas. Kathryn Bigelow admires alpha males who flaunt military operating procedures, and so do movie ticket buyers everywhere. This is standard war movie stuff.

The Hurt Locker is a very well made film, but best film of the year? An action film with little characterization? That’s hard to imagine, even though some good critics think so, like J. Hoberman in The Village Voice. Maybe those critics didn’t see A Serious Man. [Feb. 2010]

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