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The Hurt Locker, Cultural Politics and Uncritical Critics

Screening the Politics Out of the Iraq War

by DAVID STERRITT

The Hurt Locker, the widely praised movie about American soldiers on a bomb squad in Iraq, has arrived in theaters with enough rave reviews to fill two dozen quote ads. While the film is excellent in some respects, its politics are worrisome – not because they’re wrong, but because there are no politics in a film about the most politically fraught conflict in recent memory. And the eagerness of critics to overlook or excuse this bothers me just as much.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a screenplay by Mark Boal, the movie focuses on a three-man bomb-disposal unit that plies its trade with a savvy balance of skill, nerve, and machismo. Careening from one crisis to another, the story is a nonstop succession of suspense episodes, made extra harrowing by the actions of the main character, a danger addict who defuses deadly bombs as enthusiastically as other people play video games, putting missions and lives in needless jeopardy. As the rave reviews have rightly noted, The Hurt Locker is ingeniously acted, edited with razor-sharp timing, and shot with great attention to naturalistic detail. It also has a highly authentic atmosphere, since Boal based the script on his experience as an embedded journalist with an Iraq unit like this. His earlier work includes the Playboy article “Death and Dishonor,” about the murder of an Iraq war veteran near Fort Benning, Georgia, in 2003, which inspired Paul Haggis’s film In the Valley of Elah – the first of two 2007 pictures (the other was Brian De Palma’s postmodern Redacted) that brought forceful antiwar messages into multiplexes everywhere.

How times have changed. The Hurt Locker beats those movies for hair-raising action, but it comes up extremely short in the politics department. In a New Yorker interview, Boal said he didn’t want the characters  “standing up and giving speeches” because “you’re probably not thinking about the geopolitics of oil when you’re standing over a bomb.” Does that mean audiences shouldn’t think about geopolitics either? Boal has also compared the picture to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now, telling a Writers Guild of America website that both movies have an episodic format that’s true to the existential realities of war. Maybe so, but Coppola’s film packs an enormous number of ideas (some insightful, some not) into its ambitious storyline. By contrast, each episode of The Hurt Locker is a marvelously wrought specimen of suspense-movie technique, and that’s all it is, apart from a few isolated scenes.

From all appearances, Boal and Bigelow are operating from the same premise that motivated Steven Soderbergh when he made Che – that war movies are built on physicality and violence, and thinking only slows down the action. (It’s a good thing Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick didn’t feel that way; we wouldn’t have the rich complexity of Full Metal Jacket or The Thin Red Line.) This is an oddly self-limiting position, given the huge supply of important issues at stake. What groups and individuals are planting those explosives all over Baghdad and beyond? Don’t they put life and limb at risk as audaciously as the bomb-squad soldiers do? What motivations – political, nationalistic, religious, philosophical – shape their strategies and shore up their morale? And why, in this equality-conscious Hollywood era, does the film push Iraqis into the margins, using them as only as momentary foils for the American guys, and two-dimensional foils at that? Questions, questions, none of which Boal and Bigelow take on.

Nor have they been raised by most critics, who’ve been so thrilled by the picture that immediate, visceral responses have outgunned reflective, cerebral ones. Dana Stevens of Slate wraps up a rave by saying The Hurt Locker is “without question the most exciting and least ideological movie yet made” about the Iraq war, as if excitement sans ideology – any ideology – were the formula for top-grade cinema. Numerous reviewers find the film’s vagueness about geopolitics, and even geography, a plus rather than a minus. “It so happens that The Hurt Locker takes place in Iraq,” writes Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly. “But geography is almost beside the point.” Kenneth Turan says in the Los Angeles Times that “it’s unfair to burden The Hurt Locker with the Iraq label” since there’s “no sense of winning or losing a war here, no notion of making a difference or achieving lofty geopolitical aims,” echoing Boal’s dubious distinction between movies that actually think and movies that just move. Politics don’t even occur to Roger Ebert, who calls The Hurt Locker “a great film, an intelligent film, a film shot clearly so that we know exactly who everybody is and where they are and what they’re doing and why.” Has the bar for great, intelligent films slipped so low that a movie qualifies by being comprehensible?

And so it goes. David Edelstein recognizes the political shallowness of The Hurt Locker near the end of his New York review, then promptly endorses it. “Last but maybe foremost are the politics—or lack of them,” he writes, commendably bringing up the problem. “The question of what the hell these good men are doing,” he continues, “in a culture they don’t understand with a language they don’t speak surrounded by people they can’t read hangs in the air but is never actually called.” So far, so good, until he asks the rhetorical question, “Or is that why this movie rises above its preachy counterparts?” This raises two non-rhetorical questions in my mind: What qualities make those counterparts preachy, as opposed to informative or provocative? And what counterparts are we talking about, anyway? The critic gives no clue. Over at the Village Voice, meanwhile, Scott Foundas rightly notes that some film-festival viewers tagged The Hurt Locker “apolitical,” and then he executes the same maneuver as Edelstein, saying those comments only show that the film “is mercifully free of ham-fisted polemics” and is content to “immerse us in an environment.” I’m as anti-ham-fist as the next moviegoer, but there would have been plenty of room in that environment for some progressive polemics.

In another mostly perceptive article, New York Times critic A.O. Scott calls Bigelow “one of the few directors for whom action-movie-making and the cinema of ideas are synonymous,” saying you may “emerge from The Hurt Locker shaken, exhilarated and drained, but you will also be thinking.” Thinking about what, however? “Not necessarily about the causes and consequences of the Iraq war,” Scott hastens to add. Scott’s conclusion is a let-down, but at least he explicitly faults the movie’s political limitations, saying that the filmmakers’ concentration on moment-to-moment experience is “a little evasive.” Take out the “little” and the point would be better made.

David Denby’s review in The New Yorker is also both insightful and problematic. The Hurt Locker is not political, he writes, “except by implication—a mutual distrust between American occupiers and Iraqi citizens is there in every scene.” Again the film’s political shortfall – its politics are only implicit, and they encompass nothing more profound or sweeping than distrust – is nothing to fret about. “The specialized nature of the subject is part of what makes [the film] so powerful,” Denby continues, “and perhaps American audiences worn out by the mixed emotions of frustration and repugnance inspired by the war can enjoy this film without ambivalence or guilt.” I’m not sure “enjoy” is exactly what Denby meant to say in this context, but I am sure that movie-movie pleasure is not the best contribution a war-themed film can make to a culture that’s politically challenged to begin with.

The reviewers I’ve quoted are among the best in the business, writing about movies and moviemaking with flair, intelligence, and expertise. Which is why their responses to The Hurt Locker – and there are plenty more that would illustrate my case – need thinking about by anyone concerned with today’s cultural politics. Academic critics have been analyzing films along political lines for decades, sometimes astutely but rarely in the popular venues (or plain-speaking language) that reach and affect widespread audiences. Precisely because its action-movie suspense and high-octane visuals make The Hurt Locker a credible competitor in the summer-blockbuster sweepstakes, its political void represents a sorely missed opportunity for its makers, who could have used this platform to deepen public discourse on the continuing Iraq misadventure and the Afghanistan quagmire that grows muddier by the day. Journalistic reviewers could have done the same, not by overlooking its excellence as a suspense movie but by spotlighting the political absence that keeps its excellence strictly on the surface. Nobody benefits when critics are as apolitical as the films they criticize.

DAVID STERRITT is chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, past chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle and the Columbia University Seminar on Cinema and Interdisciplinary Interpretation, and author of Seeing the Invisible: the Filmes of Jean-Luc Godard and many other film-related books.