Reality Effects: Politicizing The Hurt Locker

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.”

6 Comments »

  1. Tara Judah Said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 5:19 am

    I found the film very myopic in its depiction of American soldiers and absolute lack of depiction of the Iraqi people whose lives and homes have been occupied by a foreign force (I use ‘occupation’ rather than ‘war’ just as Jonathan Rosenbaum does). I think Bigelow’s intentions ought to be considered with a pinch of salt (let’s be honest, if directors held the authority over the meaning of their own films then the world would be devoid of almost any interesting filmic insight at all). For me the film was very well made (formal elements: cinematography, editing, etc.) but the artful direction didn’t distract me from an awareness that the film was trying to manipulate me into empathising with the US soldiers and therefore somehow justifying their presence in Iraq on the level of their being individual human beings. Although the likes of War Tapes humanises its soldiers and ultimately blames ‘the system’, it still shows the absolute lack of humanity that they oftentimes exhibit also. It’s not that its apolitical (I don’t truly believe any film could be) but The Hurt Locker would have been a lot braver if it had have shown another dimension to the occupation in Iraq. I suspect it will be a long time before anyone makes a film about these horrific events that will have anything even close to a balanced view, and certainly not whilst the events persist.

  2. Chuck Said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    Tara, I think it’s fair to refer to the current situation as an “occupation,” and even fair to suggest that our actions amounted to an invasion of another country (and to be direct about my politics, I opposed the war from the very beginning).

    You’re right to suggest that the screenwriter and director’s intentions often get obscured or lost, whether due to paratexts that frame interpretation, audience expectations, or some combination of both. That’s why I think the film is “politically ambivalent,” in the terms described by Frank Tomasulo in an essay on Apocalypse Now. Like that film, The Hurt Locker invites both pro- and anti-war readings.

    The myopia/identification issues are complicated for me, in that I think the film is trying to suggest that the soldiers are unable to truly see the Iraqi civilians. But that also makes it difficult for “us” to do anything other than see Iraq through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. In that sense, I don’t know if I would characterize what is happening as “manipulation,” so much as a blind spot in terms of how war films are constructed, even one that is attempting to deconstruct traditional narrative structures.

    In terms of your larger question, I wonder if we truly want a “definitive” Iraq War film. I actually like that we have so many perspectives, including a few films and documentaries made by or with the assistance of Iraqi civilians, that have been seen pretty widely (My Country, My Country is the most accessible example). But you raise some interesting questions.

  3. Chuck Said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    This might only reinforce your point, but I have found the discussion of the military reaction to The Hurt Locker interesting. The latest example of this is in the LA Times. The contrarian in me wants to ask if anyone has thought to ask some Iraqi civilians if they think the depiction of the occupation is “accurate.”

  4. amanda ann klein Said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

    Nice piece. I just watched this film this weekend–after hearing all of the hype–and found it disappointing (which always happens with hyped up films). I was especially surprised with how the film seemed to rely so heavily on cliched war/action film tropes: the wild rogue who somehow always gets by by the skin of his teeth, the straight arrow who follows all the rules. the scared, sensitive kid. These characters seemed at odds with the film’s loose narrative structure and vert cinematography.

    Of course there were great, non-cliched moments. I particularly liked the scene where the men punch each other in the stomach–a drunken, testosterone fueled game I have witnessed (with confusion) many times.

    But overall I felt a bit disappointed at the end of this film–I don’t know if that is Bigelow’s fault or the hype surrounding it.

  5. The Chutry Experiment » How to Fold a Flag [Full Frame 2010] Said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 10:33 am

    [...] of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker (my response) tended to address the film’s hyperrealist aesthetic, its use of handheld camera and its [...]

  6. Politics and The Hurt Locker. Said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 6:53 am

    [...] Vadim Rizov has a thoughtful piece at IFC.Com, and there’s an interesting response by Chuck Tryon here. There’s been quite a lot written about the film’s lack of politics, though this has [...]

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