The Hurt Locker opens with a quote by Chris Hedges - "The rush of battle is a potent and often
lethal addiction, for war is a drug." For those who do not know who Mr Hedges is (And this will
likely include nearly all of the audience), he is a self described socialist and critic of what he calls
"ruthless totalitarian capitalism", and the quote is from his 2002 book "War is a Force That Gives
Us Meaning". This quote sets up the movie's central theme, and also reveals the reason why it
fails on nearly every level.
The Hurt Locker is the latest in a series of movies about the Iraq war, which have generally
failed as badly at the box office as the Sadaamites and jihadists did on the battlefield. Directed by
Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, K-19: The Widowmaker), it tells the story of Staff Sergeant
William James (Jeremy Renner), an explosives ordnance disposal expert in Iraq, who has disarmed
over 800 bombs and IEDs.
James is brought in to replace a team leader who dies disarming an IED during the last weeks of
Bravo Company's tour in Iraq. He quickly clashes with his teammates, especially Sergeant J T
Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who is appalled at the risks that James takes, and exposes the team
to. At one point, Sanborn and another soldier even briefly consider fragging James, but after a
wrestling match in the barracks and a look through a collection of bomb parts that James keeps in
his quarters ("Stuff that almost killed me", as James describes it), the two eventually patch up
their differences, and work together well enough.
The Hurt Locker is a good looking movie, with Jordanian locations standing in for Iraq, and
competent performances by Renner and Mackie. But much of the movie feels contrived, because
the characters and situations are in no way believable. The first problem is that technically, this is
an extremely unrealistic movie. It's not uncommon for war movies to get technical details wrong,
but the whole premise of this movie is based on a false understanding of EOD work. Most bombs
and IEDs aren't disarmed, they are destroyed with explosives. This isn't cowardice (EOD
specialists are a brave and dedicated lot), but simple common sense. It seems doubtful that many
EOD men remove their heavy protective gear while disarming a bomb in order to be comfortable.
It also seems unlikely that a real EOD specialist would drag artillery shells used in an IED through
the dirt by the wires connected to them.
At various times in the movie, the audience sees on screen a countdown of how many days Bravo
Company has left in Iraq, rather like the DEROS calendars that soldiers kept in Vietnam. This
seems appropriate, as the movie frequently seems to just be marking time. When James and his
team aren't disarming bombs, Bigelow and screen writer Mark Boal have to come up with
something for them to do. A good deal of time gets taken up with situations that don't seem
especially credible, such as a sniper duel between James's team (Which has momentarily hooked
up with a group of mercenaries), and some jihadist snipers in the desert, and a ridiculous stretch in
which James turns vigilante over the death of a young Iraqi boy murdered by jihadis.
Sergeant James' problem, according to Mark Boal's screenplay, is that he's an adrenaline junkie.
And here is where we get back to that Chris Hedges quote that opened the movie. Back in the
days of Vietnam war movies like Platoon and Casualties of War, Hollywood had no trouble
understanding the motivations of common soldiers. Vietnam was fought with a mostly conscript
army, and so the motivation of most of the movie grunts was clear enough. They were there
because they had been drafted. But the military today is made up of volunteers, so the draft is not
available to screen writers as an explanation. Boal and Bigelow have no idea what would lead a
man like Staff Sergeant James to volunteer for hard and hazardous duty. They can assemble the
props, weapons, vehicles, uniforms, and find excellent locations for filming, but they know not
these men. No doubt EOD work is exciting, and nerve wracking as well. But those who do it,
regardless of what adrenaline rush they may get from it, do not behave as recklessly or as
unprofessionally as James.
After a brief interlude at home, James returns to Iraq for another fix, and the clock resets to 365
days left in Iraq. But Chris Hedges got it wrong. War isn't nearly as addictive as antiwar and
antimilitary pot of message. Four decades after the last helicopter lifted off from the American
embassy in Saigon, Hollywood is still jonesing on it.