Let’s get one thing straight: I have no idea what war is really like. I’ve seen ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘The Thin Red Line’, and I grew up in a place colonised by a long-running civil conflict, and I’ve been to Jerusalem and Bethlehem and all kinds of other places where people inhabit the false consciousness described by de Niro’s Al Capone in ‘The Untouchables’ as ‘you can get further with a kind word and a gun than just a kind word’. But I have no idea what war is really like. And I don’t think it’s too dogmatic to say that unless you’ve actually been in a war, that you are in the same position as I am.
That doesn’t mean you can’t form a substantial and meaningful opinion about war; just that the opinion needs to be tempered by humility.
With that in mind, some thoughts about ‘The Hurt Locker’, Kathryn Bigelow’s deep focus minimalist action film, in which Jeremy Renner’s bomb disposal technician wears a suit that makes him look like an alien, strides up to mortar shells, and hopes he’s cutting the right wire, in Baghdad, in 2004.
It’s easy to respond to the tension created by such scenes by saying that this is one of the most exciting films (in the sense of forcing you into your seat, afraid for what is going to happen to the characters), or one of the most expertly edited and shot (no matter what is happening, you know precisely where you are). It’s true that ‘The Hurt Locker’ sets the bar for thoughtful action cinema very high.
What’s more valuable, however, is that it does three things that such movies rarely achieve.
It’s not an anti-war movie; nor is it jingoistic or flag-waving. It might be true to say that ‘The Hurt Locker’ has no politics. It just attempts to portray what young US American men have been doing, and how Iraqi people have been responding, for the past six years. It doesn’t have to tell us that the decision to go to war was utterly wrong: glimpsing what truth is told about the men in this film makes it obvious.
It manages to almost completely avoid cliche – the young buck doesn’t have a moment of breakdown or redemption; the race-against-time to save someone ends as it probably often does in real life; the characters talk to each other the way real people talk.
And in its attempt at saying something about the war in Iraq (which it does better than any of the previously released similarly-themed movies), it also illuminates questions of masculinity, the responsibilities of adulthood, relationships between men, and the yearning that each of us has to lead a meaningful life. It takes the audience seriously enough not to invite us to a show of cathartic violence; but a relentless portrayal of hell on earth where there is no release until somebody decides to STOP. A hell of our own making; and I think many of us who opposed the war could benefit from seeing a film that aims to take the experience of being a soldier more seriously than some of our rhetoric has done.
The final image of the film, which implies that there are some people for whom combat is an addiction (let’s assume that includes the whole human race) evokes with the sharpest clarity two more challenges: to replace the myth that chaos can be turned into order through violence, someone needs to tell different stories about how change occurs; to offer a choice between brutality and cowardice, someone needs to offer a different vision of masculinity than the false choice between warrior or wimp. Finally, ‘The Hurt Locker’ is an accusation: If all that ‘peaceful’ society offers is a vast choice of breakfast cereal, then it’s no wonder so many of us still want to fight each other just to feel alive.