Now that Kathryn Bigelow’s verité-style war film, The Hurt Locker, has achieved front-runner status for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, the publicity for the film has directed renewed attention to the politics of representing war. As Vadim Rizov argues, this is one of the benefits of this year’s awards season, allowing us to discuss these issues in a potentially rewarding way, even though he seems to back down from this claim when he suggests that political discussions give the awards season an “undue importance.” In thinking about this debate, I’m less interested in coming to a conclusion about the film’s politics than I am in interrogating the grounds by which we try to determine them. Although it’s tempting to accept the comments from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal as definitive, it’s also important to place the film against some of the other paratexts–including the DVD itself–that help to define how it will be received.
As Rizov points out, The Hurt Locker had been pitched, until recently, as an apolitical treatment of the experiences of a unit of soldiers specializing in defusing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and for the most part, the film seems to conform that on a formal level. The experiences of the soldiers are depicted in a non-judgmental way, a perception reinforced by the use of a hand-held camera that seems to emulate the footage seen in a number of Iraq War documentaries ranging from Gunner Palace to The War Tapes, and the lack of an explicit narrative (hinted at via the in media res opening sequence in which one soldier is killed) only serves to reinforce that. The realism effect produced by the film is powerful, making it easy to read the film as an apolitical observation of what it’s like to be in combat. Here, even the Chris Hedges quotation that serves as the film’s epigraph, telling us that “war is a drug” can be read as politically neutral, an updated formulation of the “war is hell” cliche, to acknowledge the adrenaline rush produced by combat.
However, in a number of recent interviews, Bigelow has argued that the film is intended as a critique of the Iraq War, suggesting at one point that she hoped the film would help bring “closure” to the war before later adding that war is “completely dehumanizing” and that the depictions of violence against children should tell us that the film is taking a specific position against the “futility” of war. Add in the recognition that Hedges, whom she cites favorably, has been an outspoken critic of the war, and it becomes tempting to read the film as anti-war, a reading that might be reinforced by the final scene when Jeremy Renner’s SSG William James is unable to cope with the tedium of returning home to a life of grocery shopping and taking kids to school.
But I think this reading–based primarily on the artists’ intentions–misses quite a bit. A number of observers, including Jarhead author Anthony Swofford, have argued that no combat film is ever fully anti-war. And although I am not prepared to agree with her, Martha Nochimson, isolates this “pro-war” reading, arguing in Salon that we are aligned with James’s “expertise in defusing bombs and dealing with invisible enemies that our capacity to think about the larger context of the American presence in Iraq is replaced by nuance-free instincts more characteristic of the tea party movement.” In fact, although the film details James’ expertise in defusing bombs, he is also seen as making dangerous and often risky choices that endanger himself and his fellow soldiers. And, yes, we fail to see the Iraqi civilians clearly, but that’s partially because the soldiers themselves cannot see the Iraqis clearly. The one attempt to bond with an Iraqi boy ends, as we likely anticipate, in tragedy. And asking every war film to deal with “the larger context of the American presence in Iraq” seems to be calling for a political lecture, precisely the kind of film that most audiences have rejected, usually because they are too reductive. But it’s not impossible to see the film as endorsing some version of our presence in Iraq, especially when you view the DVD, which includes a trailer for Jake Rademacher’s Brothers at War, a documentary that essentially offers a pro-war argument while telling the story of Jake’s experience being embedded with his brother’s military unit.
A much more insightful critique comes from prominent war critic, Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who criticizes the film for its failure to depict combat realistically, particularly when it comes to James’ maverick behavior (although Rieckhoff commends the film’s depiction of adjusting to life after combat). In fact, Rieckhoff suggests the film lacks “respect” for US soldiers and cites another that calls the film “insulting” to the soldiers whose job it is to defuse IEDs. Rieckhoff’s complaints about the lack of realism are certainly hard to dispute, and even without any combat experience, I was well aware that many of James’ actions would have gotten him in trouble with his superiors or, worse, led to him getting shot. But given that the film asks us to balance two forms of realism–a documentary realism that depicts actual combat and an emotional realism that depicts the addictiveness of war–I’m tempted to accept some looseness when it comes to depicting combat.
This tension regarding cinematic realism was recently addressed by Chris Cagle, who argues that The Hurt Locker’s documentary aesthetic makes us feel as if we are “watching a slice of historical reality.” Although the film is deconstructing the war film (and, arguably war video game) aesthetic, much like many of Bigelow’s older films deconstruct film tropes, whether the buddy film (Point Break) or masculine visual pleasure (Strange Days), the reality effect is hard to shake. But even with this deconstructionist approach, I’d argue that the film should instead be read as politically ambivalent, as sustaining both pro- and anti-war readings, and in some sense, that ambivalence depends almost entirely on the “war is a drug” theme. In fact, the recognition that war is addictive works because of the adrenaline rush we get vicariously through James, the excitement at saving lives and the thrill of facing life-and-death decisions. In a sense, we are torn between indentifying with James and seeing him as symptomatic of a war gone wrong. Either James’ experience of combat offers an unrivaled form of excitement, allowing us to vicariously experience a watered down version of war, or the film invites us to recognize him as an object of analysis, with both approaches and readings potentially, perhaps even equally, available.
The Hurt Locker is a fascinating film, especially because of its treatment of the issue of representations of war, but it is not unequivocally pro- or anti-war, an ambiguity that is suggested not only by the reviews the film has received but also by the paratexts that help shape our interpretation of it. The film’s realism effect is also complicated by its engagement with the politics of representation, making it an incredibly difficult film to pin down.
Update: By the way, Patrick Goldstein addresses the debate over the military response to the film’s accuracy in an interesting post on his Big Picture blog. I think he’s right to point out that feature films, including those about historical events, often include inaccuracies, but given the film’s overall aim, I wonder if I’d take it as a compliment to hear that The Hurt Locker has “too much John Wayne stuff.”