I just saw The Hurt Locker on DVD. Movies about the psychological
travails of professional killers are not exactly my cup of tea, but I
have to admit that this one richly deserved the Oscars for Film
Editing, Sound Mixing and Sound Effects. Its explosions jolted even my
supremely blasé Maine Coon out of her slumber and favorite perch. I
don't even begrudge Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal their Oscars for
Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
Time Magazine doesn't call this "The Near Perfect War Movie" in vain.
War movies are not about war; they are about warriors who are on "our"
side. The Hurt Locker is a close study of three members of an Army
Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team in Baghdad circa 2004. Jeremy
Renner portrays Sergeant First Class William James, a reckless and
nihilistic war addict. James is in a masculine tango with Anthony
Mackie, who plays Sergeant J.T. Sanborn, a realistic professional
soldier counting the days to the end of his tour. The third member of
the dramatic triangle (Owen Eldrige, played by Brian Geraghty) is a
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) case in the making. He talks to
the army psychologist and is so terrified as to be barely functional
on the field. Owen is the shaky witness of the uneasy brotherhood of
his superiors. The texture and dynamics of this triumvirate supports
the movie during some of the bizarre action sequences that would
otherwise strain credulity.
As a war movie and "a first rate action thriller" (the Wall Street
Journal's description) we should not be surprised that The Hurt Locker
depicts bounty hunting Black-Water-type mercenaries as valiant
warriors who fight insurgents in tandem with the Hurt Locker trio.
It's the good guys of this movie who refer to anti-insurgency
activities as "haji-hunting." The Hurt Locker does not waste valuable
screen time on history or empathy with the locals. Only Camp Gungadins
and natives who can be used as Rorschach ink blots to the heroes'
projections get that kind of attention in this kind of movie.
But why get uptight, right? This is a genre flick, after all. And yet,
this movie did make me uptight. I could suspend disbelief about the
movie's plot but not about its profound indifference to a nation
utterly destroyed in an American preemptive war. Does making this kind
of movie say something about those who made it? We know that Mark Boal
did the reporting that led to the screenplay as an embedded journalist
in an EOD unit in Iraq. We also heard Kathryn Biglow's Oscar
Acceptance speech dedicating the movie the women and men of the
military. But the DVD commentary provides more direct evidence for
this line of inquiry. There is a scene early in the film in which an
American HUMMV is negotiating the traffic in Baghdad. The scene is
shot in Jordan. Mark Boal volunteers that the Mayor of Amman was
against shutting down the busy street, and it would have been
impossible without the intervention of the American ambassador. Then
comes a scene in which Brian Gheraghty throws an empty water bottle at
the car blocking it from his HUMMV. The man sitting at the back of the
car is palpably livid at the garbage-throwing American soldier. We see
him through the back window of the car turning around and angrily
shaking his arm. The scene cuts to a mangy cat jumping the gutter. And
here is the DVD commentary for these scenes:
Mark Boal: Brian (Specialist Owen Eldrige in the movie) threw a water
bottle at some guy in a car. Couldn't believe he did that. I mean it
was a great shot and the guy just didn't know what the hell was going
on. I don't think that car was working for us, was it?
Kathryn Bigelow: Neither was the cat.
One wonders if the American ambassador had also obtained a license for
the crew of The Hurt Locker to abuse the Jordanian "Hajis" and capture
their genuine annoyance on film without their consent. One wonders if
Hollywood's newfound conscience about abusing animals in the process
of filmmaking also extends to the brown people of the Middle East.