Review: The Hurt Locker (2008)

What immediately stands out about The Hurt Locker is the spectacular camera work. The adept cinematography manages to make each combat situation feel completely different: a battle in close quarters, a tense foot patrol down an alley, a sweep of a derelict building, a long-range shoot-out between snipers, all have a unique feel reflected in the montage. But it is in the urban bomb-defusing scenes where Kathryn Bigelow’s camera really shines. In these scenes the cuts quicken and the perspective quickly changes, often traveling 360 degrees to view the bomb squad from every possible direction. This nervous cutting is meant to disorient and produce anxiety in the viewer, and brings home to the audience the danger that the bomb squad faces. It is not clear who is watching, from where they are watching, and whether the spectators are friends or foes. The camera often becomes one with the interior audience, the Iraqi bystanders watching the bomb squad; sometimes the camera even takes a point-of-view shot of the man who almost assuredly is the bomb maker, ready to detonate the bomb at any moment. These faceless menaces show that danger is everywhere- and no one knows quite what form this menace will take. Any person can be the enemy.

Although The Hurt Locker’s cinematography shows wonderful mastery of the form, what elevates The Hurt Locker to the stars is how it gives its characters life without resorting to cliche. Since the majority of the movie is filled with adrenaline-injected action sequences, the little moments of quiet between battles gain an outsized importance. And in these small stretches, The Hurt Locker manages to give its soldiers real depth. The characters live in a world where, far from compartmentalizing violence, it seeps into every recess of their brain. Every social interaction is tinged with the threat of violence. When Will goes overboard in a drunken game of boxing, starts riding J.T. like a bull, and refuses to quit, J.T. puts a knife to his throat to make him stop. In one harrowing scene, J.T. even plans in detail how he could murder Will and get away with it. Despite J.T. being the wary and professional member of the team, he contemplates immensely transgressive violence. The antagonism between J.T. and Will is not just personal, but racial. J.T., an African-American, early in the film tells Will that he is “a redneck piece of trailer trash.” Their conflict throughout the movie becomes a microcosm of the racial tensions of American society. And violence does not just affect the relations between soldiers, but infects even friendly interactions between conqueror and conquered. In Will’s conversations with the Iraqi boy, Beckham, graphic threats of violence (“I’m going to chop off your goddamned head with a dull knife”) are uttered, and then retracted as a joke. Will’s rapport with Beckham is punctuated with these mock shows of dominance that illustrate the uncrossable gulf between invader and invaded. Other interactions between Americans and Iraqis take on symbolic resonances as well. The scene where Will sneaks into the Iraqi professor’s house in a misguided attempt to avenge Beckham (who is not actually dead) could be seen as symbolic of the entire Iraq War. What more fitting symbol of the American failure in Iraq than a soldier being humiliated and driven out of a house he wrongly entered in a search for vengeance predicated on bad information? The Hurt Locker, contrary to what some claim, is not an apolitical movie, but it does not overtly wear its politics.

But the way that The Hurt Locker refuses to broadcast its politics relates to my main concern with the movie. While, as my discussion above shows, I think there are some complex, critical strains to The Hurt Locker, I simply cannot shake the feeling that, at its core, The Hurt Locker’s politics are reactionary and regressive. My uneasiness derives from how terribly The Hurt Locker portrays the Iraqis. Even though the movie does not resort to easy jingoism and amply demonstrates the American hubris in entering Iraq, The Hurt Locker reinforces some xenophobic ideas that the Iraqis are inherently dangerous. An illustrative example appears in the scene where Will defuses the bomb in the body of an Iraqi boy. Throughout the scene the camera cuts to the pencil-pushing army psychologist pleading with some Iraqis to stop cleaning up the rubble and evacuate. Eventually, with increasingly overt threats, the psychologist succeeds in getting the civilians out of the way, but just as the team is getting into the vehicle to leave the psychologist gets blown up by a nearby bomb. The lesson from the scene seems to be “see what happens when you try to help those people?” True, the final scene shows Will risking his life to help an Iraqi, but this scene seems to emphasize his personal heroism, not the general bravery of the American soldiers or the humanity of the invaded Iraqis. Besides Beckham, the movie never provides sympathetic or fleshed-out Iraqi characters. Mostly they are bystanders, who may or may not be dangerous. Overall the film reaffirms that any Iraqi can become the enemy and is therefore not to be trusted. There is not much room for sympathy in The Hurt Locker’s portrayal of the Iraqis, and this leads it to be a far more regressive film than it deserves to be.

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