human behavior

Review: The Hurt Locker

Posted in American Culture & Politics, Reviews by humanb on March 6, 2010

I rented The Hurt Locker from iTunes last night and watched it on the big, flat screen with surround sound. I was expecting this film to be magic since it’s wrapped up all the best film and direction awards this season other than the Golden Globes. The praise for the film and its director has been effusive and at times, as extreme as the tarring of Avatar and its director James Cameron. So I was expecting that I would be shamed for my love of Avatar after seeing the Hurt Locker. By one-third of the way into the film and through to the end, I was struck with one overriding sentiment.

Huh?

I liked the film for the most part, but great it was not. Let’s consider some of the film’s flaws…

Plausibility

I know short of nothing about the military so I’m sure I can be challenged here, but it seemed to me highly implausible that a group of four or so soldiers would be cruising the mean streets of Baghdad in 2004 without heavy escort and perimeter protection to defuse a bomb in the middle of the road. I highly doubt this same group would be exploding collected bombs in the middle of the desert without any air or ground cover; or that a similar sized collection of British soldiers would be escorting two high-profile insurgents in an SUV across a great expanse of desert without heavy escort. These were clearly plot devices to increase tension, but the improbability of the scenarios weakened the tension considerably.

Equally implausible was the behavior of the protagonist. Again I’m sure I can be challenged here, but the protagonist discarding his bomb suit and radio communication, throwing smoke screens to hide his visibility to his own team, leaving base in the middle of the night with a hand gun to pursue the murderers of an Iraqi boy in a hostile neighborhood, and pursuing insurgents in the dark into hostile territory with only two bomb experts as backup – despite their being companies responsible for such missions – seemed to defy what is tolerated or likely with respect to an American solider’s behavior in a time of war.  Perhaps I’m naïve and romantic here, but I thought the US military was a fairly disciplined entity. And again, the tension Bigelow attempted to build in these scenes was deflated by the improbability of the scenarios. It was hard to care very much what happened to the protagonist when he was willfully and recklessly putting himself and his team in such ridiculously dangerous positions.

Characters

It would be a hard sell to say the characters in this film were original. The kamikaze team leader with emotional issues was Tom Cruise in Top Gun, only a much less sympathetic character. His motivation was the “rush” of war, which is not terribly interesting in itself.  His rapid development of affection for the Iraqi boy, and the lengths he went to avenge his death were a bit surprising for such a seasoned soldier who surely would have encountered a dozen such boys in Afghanistan as well.

The black soldier was the stereotypically risk-averse and responsible soldier – the voice of reason. Of course his considering killing his own team leader was a treasonous and dubious twist.

The third main character was your standard “What’s the point of all this death?” – sceptic. His psychiatrist could have been a more interesting character. The role of army psychiatrists and the messages they might delivery to soldiers to maintain their mental health and motivation to wage war would be a fascinating study in medical ethics. But the plot here was painfully predictable from the moment the skeptical soldier suggested the psychiatrist leave his desk and revisit the war zone. You knew he was going to die, and you highly doubted that even an army psychiatrist in Iraq would be so naïve as to engage in extended polite communication with a group of Iraqis with a wheelbarrow in the middle of a suspected bomb site.

Plot

There wasn’t a plot in this film per se. It was a sweeping picture of the lives of three bomb experts in an otherwise invisible company over the course of a single rotation. This type of plot or absence thereof is perfectly fine and well suited for this type of picture, but the silliness of the scenarios presented made you care less about how things unfolded.

Acting

This was consistently solid – particularly so in the case of Jeremy Renner who played the lead character, and Anthony Mackie, the main supporting actor.

Message

Films don’t need to have a message. Art never does in my view. This film didn’t have one beyond the frank illustration that our soldiers in Iraq display unbelievable courage in facing the prospect of death every time they patrol Iraqi streets. It obviously highlighted the unbelievable stress, bravery and skill of our bomb experts in Iraq then and now. In doing this, the film served a greater purpose.

Direction

It’s hard for me to judge this. There were many moments where I found the direction inspired, but as many moments where I found the editing to have been responsible for building what tension there was. I’d say it was very well-directed, but I do wonder how much of Hollywood’s love affair with the direction has to do with the fact that a young, beautiful woman directed a gritty, war movie. Would we be hailing the director had it been Jerry Bruckheimer?

Legacy

This is where the film failed most. At the conclusion of this film, did you care that it was over? Did the memory of it linger? Did it challenge your thinking? Your ethics? Did it offer anything for debate? Did it even change your view on the Iraq war? On how and when to wage war?  Did it do anything beyond increase your admiration for our soldiers in Iraq despite the inaccuracies in how they conducted missions and the improbability of their behaviors? Again, films don’t have to do any of these things, but this film didn’t do much else. My admiration for it is more an extension of my admiration for our soldiers and has very little to do with the film itself.

I wish I had seen this film before I read all the hype and before it snagged so many awards. I may have expected far too much. It’ worth seeing, again not for the film itself, but because we should all be confronted by the war we agreed to wage. We should be reminded of the men and women we sent there. They should remain in our thoughts until they return and they should be honored and generously supported when they get home.

3.5 out of 5 stars

UPDATE: [Sigh.]There’s nothing new under the sun. Just read a piece in the New York Times making many of my points but giving the film more credit. The author is Erik Malmstrom, who served in northeastern Afghanistan in 2006-2007 as an infantry officer with the 10th Mountain Division.

UPDATE: Elsewhere, a U.S. Army EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) unit retired serviceman concurs that the film’s depiction of bomb experts was fanciful.

UPDATE: Another article on servicemen unhappy with the film’s inaccuracies.

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4 Responses

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  1. condore said, on March 9, 2010 at 6:40 am

    I must have been too busy to notice this movie was out last year; until it captured the big award and your post, I had not heard about it. I will go to see it on the big screen. I generally view movies that take top awards – saves me the trouble of having to sit through too many that are just a waste of time, except for in the case of District 9 which was nominated. Unfortunately, I had already wasted my time on that one.

  2. bcrowderjackson said, on March 13, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    I can’t believe you rented it on itunes. I thought you liked Johnny Depp, didn’t he teach you anything on PIRATING? lol Girl you could have watched it for free online. All you had to do was ignore the top of people’s heads at the bottom of your screen. Good stuff.

    • humanb said, on March 13, 2010 at 9:47 pm

      lol. I wouldn’t even know where to go online to find pirated movies, and I would be too paranoid about viruses and cybercops waiting to sue my ass. I should ask your father-in-law stepfather where to go.

  3. bcrowderjackson said, on March 13, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    My father-in-law wouldn’t know, he sees dead people and talks to Leprechauns.


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