Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Magic Wands--"Warrior (Defend Moscow remix)" (mp3)

I saw The Hurt Locker over the weekend. It offered a powerful punch of realism that I needed on a lazy summer day. I didn't want fantasy or romance or even bromance; all I wanted, frankly, was some kind of truth that would stay in my head for awhile and not leave me with any easy solutions. Yeah, sometimes I'm like that.

The movie may not make much money; it certainly wasn't particularly crowded on a Saturday afternoon. Many people seem to need some lag time after a war before they are ready to confront it cinematically. For some reason, I am not that way. I plugged in right away to the short-lived HBO series, Over There, hung with the nothing's happening anxiety of the documentary Gunner's Palace, even watched the extras with the real soldiers that the excellent miniseries Generation Kill was based on.

Like The Hurt Locker, these are not films about the politics of the war. Instead, they focus on the lives of the men and women involved in a modern warfare that, until you actually see images, real or fictionalized, doesn't fit your conception of how a war is fought. It is difficult to picture the heat, the emptiness, the miscommunication, the daily grind of having to to battle the enemy's traps and bombs, rather than (most of the time), the enemy himself. What I hadn't understood in particular was the power of those roadside bombs.

Since The Hurt Locker focuses on a unit that defuses roadside bombs, one of its most powerful, lingering images is of the Iraqi citizens watching from the windows and rooftops as the American men try to undo massive charges. Like spectators at a NASCAR event, they wait as much, perhaps more, for the spectacular failure of these men and their dangerous missions. And, in some cases, they try to cause that failure. They are like the Native Americans Lewis and Clark encountered when they tried to navigate the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific Oceans. The natives would stand on the cliffs and watch them, waiting for their rafts to crash against the walls of the river canyon. Except that those people only wanted the leftover supplies from the river disaster; the menace of some of the spectators in The Hurt Locker is more palpable.

Though I've never served in the military, I've been a part of other bureaucracies, and so there are some aspects of it that I do understand. I understand the "hurry up and wait" aspect, the drudgery. I understand the need to blow off steam after a grueling experience. I understand having to deal with the out-of-touch commander who shows up after the fact and wants a piece of the glory, proclaiming, as he does in The Hurt Locker, "This is some hot shit. Hot shit." I understand the feeling of wanting to do what you have to do for as long as you have to do it, and then to be left alone. We have all received and had to carry out orders that were not our own.

What is hard for me to understand, because I have no context, is the character of a person who lives for war, who thrives in it. While he may seem like a foolish risk-taker who will act thoughtlessly with no regard for his own life, he is not someone who wants to die. He is just someone who knows that in a given dangerous situation, he is the one for the job--his hand will not tremble, his gaze will not falter, his emotions will not take over. As Emerson once said, "The hero is no braver than any ordinary man, he is braver five minutes longer."

Sergeant James, in The Hurt Locker, is such a person. When he comes into the unit, his methods seem foolish and dangerous, to the extent that he makes those around him fear for their own lives. Even as we marvel at his skills, we think, "Oh shit, this guy could get us killed." At times, the danger amuses him. At times, it earns his respect for his adversaries. At times, it becomes personal. But unless you are inside the Bomb Suit with him, you have no way of knowing what his motivation might be. There are several scenes where he is in that bomb suit, and while it may serve to protect him, it also serves to isolate him from the rest of us, with our base desires and fears and needs for self-preservation.

There is one brief, poignant scene where another soldier asks James if he thinks that other soldier is ready to get in the Bomb Suit. James simply says, "No." It isn't personal, it isn't a put down (completely); instead, it's as if James realizes that he is not of the world of men, not programmed in the same way, that he must wear the suit, regardless of how it might impact fellow soldiers or his family. It's who he is.

The Hurt Locker shows us that there are people who are made for war, made for combat, completely calm amidst the greatest dangers. These are not people that we encounter in our daily lives. They're the ones who are returning for two, three, four tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. But I have no doubt that they are there. Since I'm also reading The Great Santini as one of the books for my Summer Reading group, I've experienced two distinct portraits of this kind of man (not that it couldn't be a woman). What The Hurt Locker does so well is to show us what it's like for such a man to be in (and out of) his element.


John said...

Damn. You saw it first.

Goofytakemyhand said...

No "Warrior" by Scandal?

It went to #1 in Canada!

Bob said...

Sorry, Goofy, I was in a rush and had to go with what i could find.

Billy said...

I doubt I get to see this before it hits the DVD shelf, but it's definitely high on my list, even moreso now. Ms. Bigelow is quite the fascinating case study of female directors, and I'm hope she increases her productivity level. While I enjoy mocking Point Break any chance I get, the truth is (a) when I stumble on it I keep watching it, and (b) that movie would have completely and utterly sucked in the hands of most directors, IMO.

(BTW, I still think your comments reinforce my belief that we should have required service for our citizens.)