War has always been waged in the terms of Us against Them. Back in ye oldern days, the style of fighting was very upfront and, for lack of a better term, gentlemanly. One group of men would stand in a long line against another line of men, stretched wide across a valley, shooting at each other until there was no one left to shoot back. A victor was declared, camp was set up, and you’d await another line to step up on the other side of some sleep. In time, war has changed, devolving rather than evolving. Instead of a line of men, we’ve moved further and further into smaller, individualistic battles that constitute small parts of a larger, more complete “war.” The way we wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan bares little resemblance to our common idea of how World War II was fought (even the title “Band Of Brothers” evokes a different time). The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s best-picture winning film, shows that the war in Iraq is beyond unwinnable for the US, its very nature is untenable for humanity.
The Hurt Locker follows a team of three men who are charged with detonating IEDs, or “improvised explosive devices,” which have become the currency of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The set-up is like that of any other war movie you can think of, with our heroes all forming a cohesive team with different views and ideals who, because they’re in a war, are thrown together. Specialist Owen Eldridge, played by Brian Geraghty, is the youngest and most inexperienced member of the group. He questions the futility of the war and his part in it early and often. This character gets to fail everyone at first with an inability to pull the trigger but finds redemption (and heroism) later on. Anthony Mackie’s Sgt. JT Sanborn is the no-nonsense soldier who sticks to protocol like glue and has friction with our protagonist, SFC Will James, the “renegade soldier who doesn’t play by the rules, but dammit, he gets results,” played brilliantly by Jeremy Renner.
These characters might be fairly stock, but their environment is not. They will not have to band together to outsmart the enemy or retrofit a tank to take out a base. Hell, as they say in the film, a tank in this war is like a hulking death trap. IEDs have completely changed the dynamic of how we attack, or, more appropriately how we are attacked. They could be placed anywhere: a broken-down car along the road, a building thought to be abandoned, or simply in a hole covered over with sand. War zones aren’t relegated to the clearings outside of the main population of every-day, urban Iraq. As our boys try to respond to a bomb call, their Humvee get stuck in traffic like they’re trying to cross the George Washington Bridge at rush hour. It’s somehow beyond guerrilla warfare; it’s residential.
In the opening scene, the device used to kill wasn’t a gun or a rocket launcher, but a cell phone retrofitted to be a detonator. The man responsible wasn’t wearing a uniform, but normal, everyday clothes. The enemy could be anyone, the danger could come from anywhere, and you could be dead at anytime. A cab driver makes a left turn and ends up in what is an ever-moving front line, and if you don’t speak the language of the man pointing the gun at you (in this case, SPC James), your life is over (from a gunshot or your new classification as an “insurgent”). It’s not even guaranteed that you’ll recognize your allies, as our troops meet up with the English and couldn’t tell them from the enemy. Us vs. Them is thrown completely to the wayside.
These new “norms” are reflected through our three explosive experts. Spc. Eldridge has trouble coping with the immediacy of war. On two different occasions he sees people he knows, talks to, confides in, dematerialize in a blink of an eye. First, his squad leader (in a cameo by Guy Pearce) gets blown away while wearing his giant, sweat-inducing, cumbersome explosive suit that seems to do little good than keep all of the body parts in one place if something goes wrong. Then his psychologist, the one that Eldridge sees and tells that he “doesn’t understand” what he’s going through, tries to reason with a group of people to move for their own safety and ends up being melded permanently with the surrounding sand. It’s no wonder Eldridge spends some downtime playing the shooting game Gears of War on Xbox: at least he can figure out who he’s supposed to shoot and how to dispatch of them quickly. And I’m sure the idea of getting “another life” after you’re killed doesn’t hurt.
Sgt. Sanborn is the most “normal” of our soldiers. He’s the one who has spent years previous working in intelligence, giving him experience in both strategy and, now, execution. I have not been in the army, or any war outside of MySpace vs. Facebook, but from my experience reading about and seeing movies based on conflicts, the prevailing thought is that if you’re on the ground, don’t think. Thinking gets you killed. Your reactions, culled by your training in the proper protocol, is what will keep you alive. Sanborn wholly gives himself to this relatively simple bit of advice: if you do what they tell you to, you’ll survive. But as the film moves along, as the battles continually get smaller and more divisive, is that the best course of action? Mainly, is the protocol correct?
If you ask SFC James, then the answer is a definitive, “no.” He’s the only character who seems to understand the dire stakes at hand and the inability to reason with it. A lot of Sanborn’s actions are measured. If this, then that. It’s how he’s been programmed. James, however, sees the cruel joke that belies that structure. When he takes off his protective suit to defuse one car bomb, Eldridge and Sanborn look at him like he’s nuts. But isn’t it more crazy to believe that the suit serves any protection? If that bomb goes off, he’s dead even if he’s wearing a suit of steel; the human body is too frail for such endeavors. So what’s the point of the protocol?
James has figured out that this isn’t a fair battle: it’s a spectacle. Over his career, he has detonated over 870 bombs. More than 870 times, he has outsmarted a bomb maker whose only goal was to destroy someone like James and/or anyone who comes across the bomb’s path. As the rest of his team worries about the number of spectators that come out to watch the bomb explode or dud, James almost relishes in it. There is very little difference between the Iraqis looking onward from on high and the Romans watching the Christians fight lions. The task seems impossible–at the very least, improbable–but you watch to see if he’ll beat the odds. And, considering how ingrained the war has become to that society and over an extended time, it’s hard to think that this wouldn’t become entertainment. This is what a reality show looks like when death and destruction are a part of your every day life.
It takes a special kind of mentality to excel in this arena, and it’s something that only James seems to possess. Eldridge’s feelings are well-known throughout the film, but we only get a sobered look at Sanborn towards the conclusion. He’s seen the escalation that is featured in this film. Bombs have moved swiftly from inanimate objects to dead bodies to an Iraqi family man, just traveling on the streets, who gets kidnapped and is turned into a walking instrument of death. Sanborn, the man built on reason, can’t find any in this situation. And it’s hard to blame him. How can one find any sense of “normalcy” when this is normal?
As Sanborn and Eldridge break, for whatever reason, James does not. The character doesn’t even know why he is the way he is. In some way, you could read the reactions of Eldridge and Sanborn as the building blocks that James himself once dealt with in order to attain his current level of war zone zen. A theory: some time ago, James grappled with the situation like Eldridge did, then some time after, he morphed into the same feelings that Sanborn has, and fought through that as well. As he kindly waited for death, it never showed up. So, in a moment of exasperation, he just decided to slowly kill himself off. He accepted that he will die, alone in the dirt, and that no one will care about him. For Sanburn, it’s a condemnation, a horror. When he confronts with this knowledge, James’ reaction is almost null. It’s as commonplace as asking if the sun will rise tomorrow.
Upon my first viewing of the film, when James returns to his simple life–featuring a wide array of excitement like cleaning the gutters and choosing from a truly dizzying selection of cereal–I thought he missed the action and excitement of Iraq, specifically the “I’m better than you” nature of his work in particular. But this past viewing, I felt the character shift from selfish to selfless. The closer James gets to the outside world, to “home,” to the family that he has waiting for him, the bigger the fallout will be when he inevitably meets his bomb-making match. He keeps all of those trinkets of past bombs under his bed as a reminder that he is short for this world and to not think otherwise. Instead of waiting for the final shoe to drop, he willfully starts building up towards the shoe, trying to make the wait less agonizing, he does reckless, possibly stupid things. Because he could not wait for death, he chased after it.
In the same way, if he never sees his family, if he doesn’t give his son a father to miss when he dies, then they receive less pain, or in the parlance, when he explodes, his family won’t get hit with as much shrapnel. The example for this comes in his dealings with Beckham, the street-rat child who sells bootleg DVDs to the troops. James has a few chance meetings with him, shooting the shit, playing some soccer, and generally taking the time out of his day to hang out with him. When James thinks that the boy had been murdered and that his body would be used as an explosive device, something snapped, sending him so far as to trek around Iraq as a civilian trying to find who’s responsible for this. It turns out that it was all a false alarm as Beckham turns up a day or two after, looking for his buddy, James. James coldly ignores the kid, not making eye contact, not giving an explanation why he and Beckham can’t be friends anymore. Beckham, hurt, walks away while James stares dead-ahead in the truck, waiting to get away from him.
The saddest thing is that this man, so damaged psychologically, is the best person at his job, and absolutely should be the best with his skill set and demeanor. But by the time James does meet his end, you shouldn’t worry about him. If he keeps up on his work, I doubt he’ll be able to feel a thing.
Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment/Dark Realm Fox