The Hurt Locker is an independently financed film depicting the war on terror in Iraq. It is highly regarded as one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2008/2009. As well as earning numerous awards from critics’ organisations, festivals and groups it received 6 Oscars. This analysis however will seek to unveil the extent to which the film offers any critique of the war that it depicts. Furthermore the films portrayal of terrorism will be investigated. Although the film’s director Kathryn Bigelow “stressed that, despite the film’s focus on military campaign that has prompted heavily politicised debate, the film was not intended to be a political statement. Claiming that the film was ‘not partisan’, she argued that it focussed on the ‘dehumanising and humanising aspects of war’ and their effects on the individual” (Purse, 2011, p. 162). As this examination will show however it is not viable to isolate individuals without conveying any messages about Iraqis, terrorist, and the war on terror. Every shot, image and communication mediated during the film has been specifically chosen by its director, nothing has happened by accident, regardless of how subtle. As such to analyse in detail what each shot of the film illustrates is not to distort the message but conversely provide a greater understanding into the directors meaning.
The American film follows a US Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit working in Bagdad during the war in Iraq. The opening image reads “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug” (The Hurt Locker, 2008). The quotation outlines the film’s focus on a generalised aspect of war (intoxication) rather than raise or answer questions of the war in Iraq. This lack of direct interest with the specifics of a particular war is contradictory to some of the connotations this film exerts. The opening scene alike most other war films, serves to provide an insight into the war zone. The scene is set through the camera lens of an automated bomb disposal device. As the mechanical vehicle manoeuvres across the uneven sandy rubble of Bagdad an old Pepsi can is surpassed. The can of Pepsi among the rumbled street of Bagdad could be perceived as indicative of the network society relations between both America and Iraq. It could also be illustrative of the effects that America have had on the rumbled terrain of Iraq, even before their occupation.
A great deal more in this film is demonstrated through imagery rather than dialogue. For the part that Iraqis play in this war, Bigelow provides very little from their perspective. Bigelows strong focus on individuals serves to exclude Iraqis as ordinary people living their daily lives. “For the most part across the narrative we share the same impressions of the Iraqis that the soldiers have: they are unknowable, mysterious, and potentially dangerous” (Purse, 2011, p. 167). This perception of the Iraqis is provided through various techniques. In the first scene alone their potential to be dangerous is strongly exhibited when what looks like an ordinary bystander is responsible for detonating a bomb which kills the EOD unit’s previous leader. The mystery and suspicion surrounding every Iraqi are provided through shoddy camera shots of their faces, rarely capturing their whole face leaving the viewer unable to attach any emotions or feelings to the Iraqi. Moreover Bigelow offers no written translation for Iraqis dialogue, further disengaging the viewer from the Iraqi and dehumanising them in the process.
Through its dehumanising effects the film serves to create the terrorist as the homo sacer..
The key problem with this film is the lack of distinction between the terrorist and the Iraqi, the film serves to create all Iraqis as ‘homo sacer’. This is demonstrated in the film in the scene in which James, the EOD unit’s newly assigned maverick leader has a standoff with an Iraqi taxi driver. The film never reveals the intentions of the taxi driver, however once the American army has recognised the Iraqi as a potential threat and physically withdrawn from his vehicle and dragged away James responds “if he wasn’t an insurgent, he sure the hell is now” (The Hurt Locker, 2008). If there is a distinction between the Iraqi and the terrorist, this film does nothing to create a distinction between the two; this scene in particular exemplifies this lack of distinction. “Consequently, a zone of indistinction emerges between law and nature, outside and inside, violence and law” (Bennett & Dicken, 2011, p. 168). The Iraqi is in this sense the exception, neither accepted in the polis, nor is the Iraqi entirely a part of nature.
‘The ‘homo sacer’ is the person who can be killed with impunity. The Hurt Locker illustrates the treatment of terrorist as a ‘homo’ sacer’ abundantly. When an Iraqi sniper shoots a gas tank in which to set a car on fire containing a bomb, he is swiftly captured off-screen. In a scene after the intensity of a successful bomb disposal the Iraqi caught its shown unconscious on the floor, being treated for a gun wound in his chest. When a senior officer arrives on the scene, the soldier treating the wounded soldier explains if he is treated shortly the wound is survivable. However the officer responds to a soldier close by, “He’s not gonna make it”, as camera pans away to follow the officer, a gunshot is heard. The wounded man is not subject to trial in court, there is no guilt felt, it appears as easy as putting down an animal. Bigelow does not assign any name or face to the Iraqi soldier killed with impunity.
“The Hurt Locker reinforces negative conceptions of Iraqis and offers the spectator the opportunity to forget the wider context and instead submerse themselves in the adrenaline- filled experiences of the individual” (Purse, 2011, p. 167).
The failure to recognise the Iraqi people reaches its climax within the narrative when James mistakes a dead Iraqi boy laying on a table for a market stall Iraqi boy ‘Beckham’ who works on the grounds of the US camp. In this particular case the Iraqi was given a name, and James had exchanged teasing remarks with the boy, yet it had little effect in creating a lasting recognition. Because of the focus on James throughout the film, the viewer is also strongly drawn into the same mistake. The director could use this story in the narrative to be critical of the US treatment of Iraqis, however she takes a kind of Michel Houellebecq approach. By providing the limited view of the war on terror through the lives of the EOD unit, the audience is sucked into the same adrenaline rush of war. As such they too, albeit can to assert enough of a difference between the two boys albeit enough camera shots in which a distinction could have been made. Bigelow to this extent suggests, yes these men of war are doing bad things, yet you are worse because where it has taken these men the rush of war to cause this myopia, it has merely taken the manufactured rush of a film to make you treat the Iraqi in the same way. This highlights the lack of any political stance. As Slavoj Zizek declares, ‘we are there, with our boys, identifying with their fear and anguish instead of questioning what they are doing there’ (in Purse 2010).
The Hurt Locker exemplifies Robin Wood’s observation that “mainstream filmmakers depoliticise their portrays of socio-political movements or issues by reframing them in terms of individual experience” (in Purse, 2011: p162). The film provides no overt message on the key aspect of the war on terror, its depoliticising effects. If the film does have a critical dimension perhaps it would be in the way that is shows very little antagonism between opposing forces. There are very few exchanges of gun fire, or spectacular battle scenes, which are usually a key cinematic component of the war film genre. This lack of real antagonism between opposing forces illustrates how Bigelow in this sense has mirrored the post-political narrative which lies behind the war on terror in Iraq.
When James is introduced to the EOD unit by Sergeant J.T. Sanborn, he is welcomed to the camp under the name “Camp Victory”. James, a little bemused, responds, “I thought it was camp liberty”, Sanborn’s explanation for the change in name was that “Victory sounds better”. This name change demonstrates how the initial rationale behind the occupation of Iraq has come to be about victory and not liberation of the people. Again Bigelow has reflected the narrow framework of the war on terror within this film narrative. It is merely about winning and losing, us or them, good and evil. “The ultimate catastrophe is the simple and simplifying distinction between good and evil, a rhetoric that basically copies terrorist rhetoric and makes it impossible to think independently” (Dicken & Lausten, 2005). In this sense although The Hurt Locker has successfully replicated the reality of the war on terror, but this reality has only served to reinforce a narrow approach to the war without providing any critique. In doing this so competently the film fails to provide any counter perspective, refusing to challenge or support the actions of the soldiers through the depiction of their perspectives. This lack of any challenges to the war on terror is further illuminated through James the protagonists, who in the film makes no individual transition due to the events endured during the film.
The way that Bigelow focuses on individuals, is displayed through the analysis of the film’s characters that the best understanding can be formed. The Hurt Locker consists of multiple protagonists in which heroism is across the team is shared. “Heroism as a cultural idea gained renewed currency in the immediate aftermath of 9/11” (Purse, 2011, p. 152). The US police, fire and ambulance service were all celebrated in the aftermath of 9/11 for their bravery and sacrifice. This film portrays heroism no differently, men placing their lives on the line for vulnerable citizens in a manner reflecting the aftermath of 9/11. Before James makes his debut in the film, Thompson appears to be the model soldier and heroic in his bravery in the face of an acknowledged danger. Thompson follows strict army protocols in the opening scene, working closely with his team members in a truly professional approach. He makes note of the region in which the bombs detonation can kill him and shares this with his team for the safety of not only himself but his team. Thompson is killed in this early sequence because of the detonation of the bomb from which he was retreating. Thompson would be a noble protagonist in any war film, his bravery and devotion to his role mirroring those actions of the civil workers in the aftermath of 9/11. However in this film he stands merely to form a stark contrast in which to understand James.
James, who joins the EOD unit as a result of Thompson’s death, slips into the same role as Thompson held, but with a distinctly varied approach. Although highly experienced he has overly relaxed attitude towards army protocols, much to the dismay of his team, especially Sanborn who in one scene punches James in disproval of his maverick approach. Unlike Thompson, James makes very little use of his radio, and moreover he removes his protective suit. From the shocked reaction of his Sanborn and Eldridge we are made aware that this is an act strictly against protocol. James is depicted embracing the risk of death in a style which distinguishes himself not only from his predecessor but also from his unit. However, if not for the favourable visual presentation of James, which include shots of him walking directly into the danger zone with the camera following behind his lead, than his actions might have been interpreted as alienating in another film. Unlike his predecessor who displayed authority through the correct chain of command and regulation, James exhibits and exerts his power of his team only at the point of self destruction. At no point other than when close to a bomb (self-destruction) does James exhibits any authority. The only other time in fact was to lead his team into an unknown danger within the dark, in which Eldridge was wounded.
Throughout the film “James is depicted as an emotionally incompetent character whose life is punctuated by extremes” (Bennett & Dicken, 2011, p. 173). The first shot of James has him listening to heavy metal music while smoking a cigarette. Moreover in the same scene he asks Sanborn to assist him in removing a protective object which covered the window. Although Sanborn informs James that the cover is there for his protection from attack, James dismisses the risk in order to enjoy the sun light, pulling his bed directly into the frame of the window, the area which Sanborn perceived as dangerous. This early scene immediately reveals how James revels in the face of risk and has to some extent found sanctuary in a war on terror. The scene also draws the subtle distinction between both Sanborn and James. Where the former is obsessed with security (passive nihilism) James is addicted to danger. This is demonstrated in James’ attempt to disarm an intricately placed bomb from within a car. Even when the danger of citizen lives had surpassed, James continued his attempt to disarm the bomb, leaving only himself in danger. From this the audience can see that his actions are beyond bravery, but in serving of his addiction, passion to be close to the real.
Bigelow’s depiction of James enforces a radical nihilist mentality. His character is shown to be out of place in a passive nihilistic society. His search for antagonism from within his unit lead what could have been a bonding moment between team members into Sanborn holding a knife to his throat. For what was clearly a distressing moment for Eldridge, who was merely a spectator, James revelled in the moment, pushing the knife more firmly towards his own neck. In this nihilistic perspective of James it would be understandable to alike his character more with our perspective of the terrorist of 9/11. The similarity between both James and the terrorists he undermines is to an extent understood by James himself. Unlike the way in which the film conveys or how the American soldiers perceive Iraqis, James views terrorist on a level equivalent to his own. This is illustrated when Eldridge and Sanborn discover a box under James bunk containing components of some of the bombs he’s defused, detonators and batteries etc. In a response not really answering the question to why he had these he replies by describing the scenario in which he defused a bomb in the UN building. He says “This guy was good I like him” in reference to the terrorist who created the bomb. Thus demonstrating that James’ antagonistic relationship with the terrorist is cherished to the point in which he comes to respect the terrorist as an equal.
James relationship with the Iraq people and terrorist is further shown to be distant of that of his fellow American soldiers. This is demonstrated when the EOD unit is called to a situation in which an Iraqi man has u-turned on a plan to carry out a terrorist attack after a bomb had already been sealed and locked to his chest. Sanborn reveals a typical suspicion of the Iraqi man as the film has lead even the audience to feel. The presumably Iraqi translator pleads the man’s innocence, to which only James gives substance. In commencing an operation to help the Iraq man a fellow American solider asks James, “Can’t we just shoot him”. These words illustrate the Iraqi status in the war on terror as ‘homo sacer’ furthermore, fully realised in these words. James however continues his attempt to save the man doing all he can to help him, risking his life heroically. Sanborn further typified the perception of the Iraqi by holding a gun up to the Iraqi man as James was trying to save him. In trying to stop James from saving the man, he shouts “Fuck him, let’s go”, showing how little this man’s life means to him. When James realises he can no longer save him he offers a genuine apology besides how little the Iraq man would understand. His feelings about the Iraq people are not marred by the portrayal of the unknowable, potentially dangerous and mysterious Iraqi/terrorist.
Analysing The Hurt Locker in a critical manner allows recognition to how it reflects upon terrorism and the war on terror; it proves easy to be drawn into focusing on the individual dramas. However the film provides very little other insight in its reflection upon the war on terror beyond that of the core characters. Not questioning nor supporting any motives behind the war on terrorism. Neither are the characters challenged throughout the film, they do not alter their views on Iraqis, nor do they come to understand what they are dying for. In this respect “The Hurt locker exemplifies the restricted critical capacity of contemporary cinema on the war against terror” (Bennett & Dicken, 2011, p. 180).
Bennett, B. & Dicken, a. B., 2011. The Hurt Locker: Cinematic Addiction, “Critique,” and the War on Terror. Cultural Politics, 7(2), pp. 165-188.
Dicken, B. & Lausten, a. C., 2005. P.O.V. [Online]
Available at: http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_20/section_1/artc4A.html
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Purse, L., 2011. Contemporary Action Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
The Hurt Locker. 2008. [Film] Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. United States: Independent .