The Hurt Locker
Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, 2008
#8, 2009 Skandies

So here we have another experiential film like Hunger: no real story as such, just a series of set pieces in which a bomb disposal team disposes of bombs. There's a little bit of character work thrown in toward the end, but mainly it's an exercise in "here's what it was like for U.S. troops in Iraq in the '00s."

I guess this isn't the first movie about the occupation of Iraq, but it's the first one I've seen. I've seen plenty of movies and TV shows set in World War II and Vietnam, though, so it's interesting to compare. In WWII the enemy was a group of countries with armies as powerful as ours. Their objective was to conquer the world, or at least big chunks of it, and they'd already set about doing so, invading and subjugating their neighbors. The Allies' objective was to, first, survive the Axis onslaught; second, drive the Axis armies out of the territory they had conquered; and third, inflict enough punishment on the Axis countries to force an unconditional surrender. The amount of progress being made was readily apparent just by looking at the battle lines on the map. In Vietnam, things were less clear. This time the enemy was an irredentist guerrilla army whose objective was to establish communist rule over all of Vietnam rather than just the northern half. The American objective was to keep this from happening. But even though the Vietcong were theoretically a much weaker opponent, there were no formal battle lines and therefore no way to measure progress other than through a body count, and the guerrillas' ability to replace their losses by recruiting from the local population made the body count a moot point. So while WWII movies often make the case that "war is hell," Vietnam movies tend to amend that to "war is meaningless, Sisyphean, tragic hell."

Then we have Iraq. Here, there is no defined enemy. No one really has any agenda that the American forces are there to stop. American forces invaded to depose Saddam Hussein, but soon found that they were spending most of their time fighting people who had no particular love for Saddam but were outraged by the invasion itself. Some of those involved in the resistance were members of various small militias, but in general "the insurgency" was just a catch-all term for anyone who opposed the American occupation and was willing to set up a roadside bomb to fight it. Which brings us to The Hurt Locker. Roger Ebert writes that by the end of the movie, "we have a pretty clear idea of why" one of the main characters "needs to defuse bombs," and lists as the first part of that reason that "bombs need to be defused." But the thing is, they don't. The bombs are there solely to drive us out. The only reason to defuse them is so that we can stick around long enough to strike back against the people who planted them, thereby motivating more people to join the insurgency and plant more bombs. As Duncan Black put it, "the goal is to stay until everyone who wants us to leave is dead, at which point we can finally leave." It's one order of magnitude more meaningless, Sisyphean, and stupid than Vietnam... not that you would know it from watching this movie. And while Mike D'Angelo praises The Hurt Locker for "leaving the politics implicit," it seems to me that a film like this really should either acknowledge or deny that what the characters are spending the entire running time doing is in fact part of a stupid, absurd exercise in circular logic. To do neither is to turn data into information but then stop short before turning information into knowledge or knowledge into understanding.

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