I have seen The Hurt Locker twice on blu-ray. For part 2 of the Hurt Locker debate, try here.
The Hurt Locker got 97% on RottenTomatoes.com, and it has a acquired an indie, anti-Avatar panache for this weekend’s Oscars. But honestly, I don’t really think it is that good. Instead, I think its elevation tells you more about our general desire to find a good GWoT movie after so many bad ones, and the need to balance out the Avatar behemoth. We all know that Avatar is fairly shallow, but we were so wowed by the FX that we secretly saw it more than once. So Hurt Locker is our ‘smart film’ penance. But I just don’t buy it that is some amazing war film, as the hype says:
1. In the history of war films, it is hardly as good as titans like Apocalypse Now or Platoon. Hurt Locker is more in that mid-range quality area of films like Casualties of War or We Were Soldiers. Vietnam, tragically, brought out the best in US war film, probably because we lost. Defeat ‘permitted’ or opened the moral door to investigate all kinds of issues about battlefield conduct that just don’t show up in the usual celebratory, ‘America-is-awesome’ war film. Your standard issue western or WWII film portrays the US as the hero without a hint of irony; ever noticed that there is still no movie about the 1945 Dresden bombing raid? You learn nothing you didn’t learn in the self-congratulatory US history book you read in grammar school. By contrast, most Vietnam films struggle with moral questions of how and why the US is fighting. Hurt Locker explicitly ducks this avenue, and therefore is not as intellectually rich as the best US war film, certainly not to the level of best picture. If Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, or Full Metal Jacket can’t take best picture, then the only reason Hurt Locker might get the nod is because the competition this year is so weak.
2. The Hurt Locker doesn’t really tell you much about the Iraq War. In fact, a lot of knowledge is assumed – IEDs, the Green Zone, the term ‘haji,’ the playing cards with Saddam’s lieutenants on them. So again, it strikes me as strange that this is supposed to be the best Iraq movie out there. You don’t actually learn that much about Iraq. As Vikash Yadav points out, the Iraqis are just the ‘other’ floating around in the background. And frequently, you don’t even know where the protagonists are. The long sequence in the desert with the enemy sniper was gripping but was fairly inexplicable – what were they doing by themselves in some random patch of desert? Brian Mockenhaupt makes this point well too. As a portrayal of the Iraq war, it has some fairly obvious flaws – why doesn’t the showboating lead character get reprimanded?, why don’t they just call in an air strike during the sniper stand-off if they are really trapped there for 6 hours?, what is with the lead character running around off-base in the middle of the night, etc? I would rank Generation Kill as the best portrayal of the Iraq War yet. (The obvious response is the Generation Kill is 8 hours; the Hurt Locker is 2. So Generation Kill can do a lot more and show you a lot more. Agreed; but still, I found 2 hours of Generation Kill much more convincing than the 2 hours of Hurt Locker.)
3. Another take is to suggest that the film is really about the psychology of the warfighter. Some get scared; some just muddle through; others love it. This is more convincing; the literature on battlefield stress suggests people react in all sorts of unpredictable, frequently lunatic ways when they are subject to military violence. So it is entirely possible that characters with a semi-death wish like the film’s protagonist would pop-up. But its also hard to believe the highly professionalized, highly bureaucratic US Army would not weed out such types fairly quickly. Certainly in the film, the lead character fairly quickly becomes a danger to himself and those around him. So is the film really about the possibility of combat as a narcotic? That seems more likely and is psychologically richer. War films rarely risk showing warriors enjoying war, so Bigelow deserves props for that gutsy angle. But this psychological aspect is never properly developed; the main character is simply reckless and remains so, as well as lucky, throughout.
4. One critical angle I reject is Yadav’s assertion that the film is orientalist, because the Arabs are portrayed as vague and shady. You could reverse this and say that the film is trying to capture the war from the American soldier’s point of view, especially if you accept that the film is not really about Iraq, but about the contemporary US warfighter. The average GI there clearly doesn’t speak Arabic or know the culture, so I actually found the ‘othering’ of the Iraqis a powerful narrative device. It shows you the cultural isolation, fear, and easy possibility of misperception by the Americans there. It is an reflexive response to read this as just racism; I think Bigelow is a better director than that. Similarly, Yadav argues that ‘portrayals’ of women and others could have been better, but this is easily dismissed. You can only do so much in 2 hours, and it is a constant intellectual failure of identity politics that any minority or out-groups must always be ‘portrayed’ well in the western media. For example, you might just as well make the same critique of US officers in the film – they only have a few minutes and don’t come off too well, but no one would seriously suggest the film is a group slur on the US officer corps.
5. As has been widely noted, GWoT movies have generally been poor (Stop-Loss, Body of Lies), jingoistic (Stealth), or ridiculous (Avatar, as Cameron’s self-described analogy). Hurt Locker feels far more believable than any other film to date, although top-notch still goes to Generation Kill. The notion of war as a drug is an creative one in the war film genre (although Ernst Juenger first showed us this problem in his classic Storm of Steel). And if you take the film as a battlefield stress-response memoir, than many criticisms, such as orientalism, fade easily. As a film, it is certainly worthy of your time, but I think the only reason it is a Best Pic nom is, because 2009 was a fairly weak year. If District 9 can be a Best Picture candidate, then the bar is pretty low. (D9 was good, very fun, and smart for an action movie, but really, best picture?)
Hurt Locker may get the tap, because the Academy blew it the last time James Cameron released a super-epic. The vastly superior LA Confidential got trounced by Titanic in the 1998 awards. This is one of the worst Academy decisions in my lifetime, and clearly not one that stands the test of time. The irony is that this time, unlike last time, Cameron probably deserves it. The competition this year is far weaker than LA Confidential, and Avatar is much more seminal because of its revolutionary effects. For all its glitz, Titanic’s FX were still conventional, and the story was even more mind-numbingly childish than Avatar. This time, the story is better, but the 3D FX are a massive step forward, arguably justifying the Best Picture award, especially given the weak competition. If an LA Confidential or There Will be Blood were around this year, I think the calculus might be different. But Hurt Locker is just not strong enough to overcome the major visual breakthrough Avatar’s 3D represents. (For my Avatar review, go here.)