August 18, 2009

Thoughts on The Hurt Locker

I saw the movie a little over a week ago, and I still have it rolling around in my head. Spoilers to follow.


One thing about this movie that unsettled me was watching characters who were members of my generation in a war zone. Of course, I know a good number of people who have served or are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, but the movie reminded me that these wars, like Vietnam was for the Baby Boomers, will be an enduring feature of my generation, in ways we haven't yet acknowledged.

I disagree with this assessment from n+1, which asserts that The Hurt Locker is a pro-war film. Certainly the focus on the men of Bravo company excludes all other perspectives, and to the extent that we do see other perspectives, they aren't presented sympathetically: The Ralph Fiennes-led band of contractors suck Bravo company in a shooting match, the touchy-feely colonel doesn't know what to do when out on patrol, home life for Staff Sgt. James is drudgery, etc. But I would hazard that the tone of the movie, in its own way, exemplifies what the Iraq War has become: With the original case for war having evaporated by the time they're deployed, the men of Bravo company struggle to carry out their mission, with no goal higher than getting out of there -- or in Staff Sgt. James' case, the thrill of defusing bombs. The Hurt Locker is pro-war in the sense that it doesn't portray war as utter futility; but then, I think any attempt to tell a true war story (in Tim O'Brien's sense) could be labeled as pro-war, even as it refuses to sentimentalize about it. O'Brien himself put it best:
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done.

In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe "Oh." True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis.
I will be very disappointed if The Hurt Locker doesn't get a slew of Oscar nominations -- at the least, for Best Actor and Best Director. Jeremy Renner is excellent as displaying all the contradictions in Staff Sgt. James' character; and Kathryn Bigelow does an extremely good job at creating a near-constant state of tension, even when nothing's happening. I expected to come out of the theater with my senses assaulted by war violence; instead I came out with only a weird sense of dread. In a way, that was more disturbing.

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