THE HURT LOCKER: How Kathryn Bigelow de-politicized the Iraq War

James Kaelan will have an essay about the Iraq War Film Renaissance over at The Millions next week. In celebration of this year’s crop, Flatmancrooked is re-running his review of The Hurt Locker, the film that started the trend.


Since it germinated in earnest four years ago, the crop of Afghanistan and Iraq films has been anemic. Reading the reviews, in most cases, is more entertaining than watching the films themselves. Take for instance the hastily braided Lions for Lambs by Robert Redford, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise. It has three fifths the narrative breadth of Alejandro Iñárritu’s Babel. But whereas Iñarritu ties his storylines together with raw emotion, Redford lashes his together with wonkishness. This comes from Anthony Lane’s review of Lions in the New Yorker:

    “The three stories are intercut throughout the film, to lend it at least the illusion of momentum. Sadly, unless you are Jean-Luc Godard, the sight of your characters discussing the political ethics of their own actions is unlikely to ravish the eye, and Lions for Lambs is most charitably described as Ibsen with helicopters. It winces with liberal self-chastisement: Redford is surely smart enough to realize, as the professor turns to ire on those who merely chatter while Rome burns, that his movie is itself no better, or more morally effective, than high-concept Hollywood fiddling.”

Last year the indomitable men behind The Wire—David Simon and Ed Burns—managed to put together something of a masterpiece on the invasion of Iraq for HBO. But Generation Kill was still a political film. One came away after eight hours feeling the war was a horrendous mistake and that the incursion wasn’t as simple as an earthquake; after we’d sacked the cities, we couldn’t just fix the roads and bridges. Generation Kill is an indictment of the Bush Administration, just as The Wire is an indictment of Baltimore’s bureaucracies. In both series there are good men and women doing bad things and achieving dismal results.

The Hurt Locker is another sort of film. It follows the fate of three soldiers in Iraq charged with disarming IEDs in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) replaces Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) after Thompson is killed in the line of duty. James is as unconcerned with danger as James Bond is with venereal disease, and he approaches his work with the spiritual calm of a man raking a rock garden. What is immediately evident watching The Hurt Locker is that the film is existential rather than polemical. The soldiers aren’t interested in why they’re in country. The other men on James’ team—Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are concerned only with surviving till they leave. James, on the other hand, seems captivated by his work and pursues it with the Platonic conviction that all labor is ethically sound if done excellently.

For someone opposed to the war from the first rumors, this film served as a revelation. There is nothing romantic about The Hurt Locker. It is not a sentimental portrait of brotherhood (the soldiers bond by drinking and punching each other in the stomach). And yet somewhere within the first half hour I found myself wishing I were with them in the desert. The soldiers’ work is arduous, to say nothing of deadly, but James’ approach to defusing his bombs is elegantly simple. He appears at peace working, and that calm amidst one of the tensest dramas in recent film history is intoxicating. He is not so different from the poet striving to write a clear image.

There are minor flaws, of course. We’re so prepared for the films’ first explosion that when the bomb does go off, the surprise is no greater than if we’d seen a controlled building demolition. It produces none of the shock, for instance, one feels in the opening minutes of Children of Men, when the sudden blast interrupts an otherwise peaceful London street. Alfonso Cuarón’s violence conveys the emotion of terrorism, whereas Kathryn Bigelow’s violence, at least in the beginning, celebrates the science. But Bigelow is certainly at her career best, here. The camerawork throughout is redolent of Paul Greengrass’ United 93—hand-held, but to a specific end. Unlike César Charlone’s photography in The Constant Gardener, where he shook the camera even at the dinner table, the look of The Hurt Locker is both effectively intimate and unsettling. This is not a film of pretty photographs, nor should it be.

I’m not the first to predict that people will study The Hurt Locker in twenty years for clues to the nature of the Iraq War, but I’d like to add my endorsement. This film is a document rather than a lesson. By avoiding the political fray, it gives viewers insight, regardless of perspective, into the objective circumstances of the conflict. The Hurt Locker doesn’t ask whether we made the right decision going into Baghdad, and yet it doesn’t skirt the subject. Rather it proves how impertinent such a question is to the soldiers risking their lives. On a personal level, war is a series of tasks one tries to complete alive. Anything beyond that is a distraction.


By James Kaelan

6 Responses to “THE HURT LOCKER: How Kathryn Bigelow de-politicized the Iraq War”

  1. (not) Brent Newland says:

    “sometimes i feel like im just a life support system for my dick” — mcnulty, the wire

  2. Edog says:

    There’s a scene in this movie where a soldier pauses in the middle of an ambush to rehydrate with a Capris Sun juice box. It’s not a big detail – you’d blink and miss it – but this one image really drove it home for me. These soldiers are kids, for the most part unformed. Bigelow’s genius is in the details. I love this fucking movie.

  3. Al Som-Anya says:

    Great job Kaelan, I have not watched the movie yet, but will do just tha. Keep it up!

  4. sgt akins says:

    saw this movie last week. amazing film. I served in Iraq from november 03 to november 04. let me tell you, this movie. gets it. it may not be perfect. especially for someone who was in the military, in iraq. we see the errors more than anyone. but i think in looking back on it. they were purposeful errors. for one, noone drives around iraq alone. period. that is exactly how you end up dead. but show ing them drive arondin in their one humvee emphasizes the sensation of benig alone. they were alone, a special group of men seperateed from thier peers. and that small technical error shows it well.
    the only sequence in the movie i didn’t like. was when james snuck out of the wire. it didn’t serve a purpose. and it made anyone in the military disconnect with the character.

    personally i feel this movie needs a much bigger release. fucking IMAX for christ sake. they got so much write, it’s hard to beat em up for what they did wrong.
    take it from someone who’been blown up. and also been saved by EOD guys. that first eight minutesof intense suspence? amazing. thats exactly how it is there. you know it’s going to happen. but it’s a painful strain waiting to get around to it. exactly like iraq.

    only, i would have killed that shopkeeper in the beginning.

  5. cigna says:

    It’s time to admit the truth: the war in Iraq is due to oil and government contracts to private companies, not knocking down the Towers and killing so many Americans. The White House knew these terrorists were in the country and did NOTHING! They waste time and money chasing after Mexican illigals who do us no phyiscal harm, and are doing jobs most American lazy pelple will not lower themselves to do! QUIT LYING TO THE AMERICAN PEOPLE ABOUT why we are in Iraq! We have oil resources here in American we could appropriate but for the goody two shoes who are on the side of minows, the gnats, the rats and the worms on the earth and care nothing about the people. Save the Whales, sacrifice the people! This country is being led by IDIOTS who are only interested in lining their pockets. WANT TO BE RICH? BECOME A CONGRESSMAN!

  6. Samuel Warm says:

    Thanks for great movies watching info.Well done!