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Movie Review: The Hurt Locker

Written by Nick Leitzke

As we all learned in elementary school a story’s setting is the place and time in which the events transpire. This year’s Academy Award Winner for Best Picture ‘The Hurt Locker’ clearly defines its setting as Iraq sometime in 2004. Early in the movie one of the characters is playing video games in base camp. To the properly trained eye, the video game he plays is Gears of War, a title that is exclusive to the Xbox 360. The Xbox 360 did not release domestically until November of 2005, internationally until December of 2005. Chalk this up as the only minor technical flaw in ‘The Hurt Locker,’ an otherwise excellent choice for Best Picture of 2010.

Call me Comic Book Guy if you want. I deserve it. I shall iron my hands later to chastise myself, but I can’t help it. I have to say these things. But dwelling on my snootiness is not the reason I am writing tonight about ‘The Hurt Locker.’ Tonight I am writing about ‘The Hurt Locker’ because of a tendency I have observed in war movies. I am a military buff. Growing up I was obsessed with World War II stuff, and I can bore anyone at any time if the conversation lends itself to cars, power steering, and the fact that Germany invented power steering in World War II in order to mount an anti-aircraft canon on a tank. I know. It’s sad that I know these things. Being obsessed with military stuff doesn’t mean I am hawkish when it comes to war, going to war, supporting war. Call it a morbid fascination with what human beings are willing to do to each other and the lengths they travel to do it. War disgusts me, but I have the urge to learn more about it. I want to understand war. The best way to do so is to put myself in the middle of it. Short of joining the Army, the only way to understand war is to educate myself.

Books, documentary, feature film, snippets of interviews with veterans online – if I think it helps me have a better perspective of why people fight, I will watch it or read it. Looking at my DVD collection there isn’t a shelf without a war movie. ‘A Bridge Too Far,’ ‘Glory,’ ‘Platoon,’ ‘Waltz With Bashir,’ and I can’t say anything bad about ‘Band of Brothers.’ Over time I have come to identify what’s good, to sort the quality work from the crap. You learn universal truths after a while. ‘Platoon’ makes ‘Hamburger Hill’ look like an episode of Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, and ‘Jarhead’ was a complete waste of time in comparison to ‘Three Kings.’ Realism is what I look for. Of course being an outsider means I have every right to discern between what is realistic and what is not, but the more you observe, the more you listen to testimonials, the more you read on the subject, you get a feeling for what’s genuine and what’s a guess. Both sides of the debate walk this line, both the patriotic garbage and the sentimental tear-jerking protests. Realism is what draws me to either side at any given moment. As with music or any other art form, any other storytelling, you can tell when something is honest. You just get that feeling. It’s hard to define, but realism is what keeps me watching.

After watching so many war movies, having my opinions about war, and then venturing forth into real life to talk to real people and see what they think, I have come to the conclusion that real people are idiots. I believe this to be true because real people use movies like ‘Platoon’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ to get their dicks hard, join the military, and then go off to kill others and themselves in places nobody cares about. After watching ‘Platoon’ and seeing Charlie Sheen turn into something just as monstrous as Sergeant Barnes you should feel absolutely no desire to have taken part in the Vietnam War. Don’t condemn the people who did take part, because that’s just as bad if not worse, but you should have no urge to experience insanity firsthand. Especially after watching this.

I speak from prior knowledge. I watch a lot of war movies, but back when I had cable I used to watch the Military Channel far more than I should have. I stopped watching it when they ran the same episodes of Future Weapons and Top Ten Such-and-Such-Who-Cares over and over again. Every Friday night was movie night, though, and they would show a war movie. The commercial they aired was ridiculous. ‘Platoon’ was one of the centerpieces as a voiceover invited us to “feel the rush of battle” and to “witness the birth of heroes.” When the voiceover invited us to feel the rush of battle they flashed a brief instant of a scene from ‘Platoon’ where an American soldier gets a healthy dosage of artillery fire (artillery that was fired by his own guns, no less, and they cut out the part where searing hot shrapnel burns the screaming kid). When the voiceover invited us to witness the birth of heroes we saw Charlie Sheen at the end of the movie, burned by his own napalm, holding a discarded AK47 and ready to frag Sergeant Barnes (again, they cut out the actual fragging). I really wonder if people think before they piece these things together and draw their conclusions, and then I remind myself that wondering isn’t necessary. The answer is no. Nobody thinks about the reality. Or they do, but the machismo thrill of an erection is too much to keep them from making a rational decision. The fact that anyone could watch ‘Platoon’ and long to be trapped in a killing mess proves to me that average citizens should not be allowed to vote. “It’s a lovely fucking war.” It sure is, and democratically elected officials brought it to us.

So what does all of this have to do with ‘The Hurt Locker?’ As I said before, ‘The Hurt Locker’ is an excellent movie that deserved its Best Picture award. Dealing with an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team is the proper perspective for a war that seems to revolve daily around press releases of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and suicide bombings. What’s happening in Iraq is a multilayered mess that has me angry on levels deep inside that I didn’t even know existed before 2003. Two lines in ‘The Hurt Locker’ stand out and show me why I’m so angry.

In one scene a tanker truck has exploded in the Green Zone and the EOD team is sent to investigate. While examining the devastation they realize it was not the work of a suicide bomber, that instead it was a remote detonation from the hand of someone watching a safe distance away. One of the characters says, “You know there are guys watching us right now. They are laughing at this, and I am not okay with that.” That’s a perfect summation of every Devil’s advocate fiber in my body. Every time this EOD team is sent into action there are people watching from the sidelines, watching from rooftops, watching from balconies and minarets, people we know are probably responsible for what just happened or what is about to happen but there’s no concrete proof. If I was there I’d want to get them, too. We know these bastards are out there. Let’s just get them because deep down inside that’s what we all want to do. We’re tired of this garbage and killing every last one of them is the easiest way out. There’s nothing right or noble about it. It just is.

In the other scene, after a rather disastrous mission, the team is driving back to base in their Humvee. One of them thinks about the arbitrariness and futility of this war. “Another two inches. Shrapnel zings by, slices my throat. I bleed out like a pig in the sand. Nobody will give a shit. My parents will care, but they don’t count. Who else?” And this is where I do the rest of my finger-pointing, at myself and every last American who draws breath in normal every day life. How many of us have lived lives, meaningful or otherwise, in the seven years since we invaded Iraq? In the nearly nine years since we invaded Afghanistan? Unless we are directly connected to someone deployed to one of these wars, no one bats an eye when word comes of another IED blowing up a Humvee. We don’t think about it because we don’t care. We don’t care because the general thinking of everyone on either side of the war movement is “it’s not my fight, so it’s not my problem.” Our involvement with this conflict extends to either hoisting an effigy of George W. Bush as Hitler or waving a miniature American flag at a Sarah Palin rally. Beyond that we have no commitment or desire to be more committed, because then it might become our problem. Ignoring the issue is much more attractive. 4397 American soldiers have died in Iraq and over 30,000 wounded, so it’s definitely someone’s problem. Nothing is going to change it, so there is nothing else to say.

‘The Hurt Locker’ is a great movie because it has me digging deep inside myself to find these opinions, however ugly, unseemly, and unattractive they may be. ‘The Hurt Locker’ succeeds, and ‘The Hurt Locker’ is one of those timely cultural movies that everyone needs to see. Sit through two hours and wonder how hard it is to care for a moment.

As successful a war movie ‘The Hurt Locker’ is, I still see it falling into the trap that so many other war movies fall into, intentionally or otherwise. Remember my rant a few paragraphs ago about misguided patriotism? I don’t believe it was director Kathryn Bigelow’s intention to turn the end of ‘The Hurt Locker’ into a recruiting poster. At the end of the movie our main character is returning voluntarily to Iraq for another tour. When he joins his new unit we have Ministry playing on the soundtrack, and the credits roll to the tune of “Khyber Pass.”

Knowing what kind of band Ministry is, I know what Kathryn Bigelow was going for here at the end of ‘The Hurt Locker.’ The end of this movie is tragic. If the tragedy has not yet happened, then it probably will happen on this 365-day combat tour or the next one. This is not meant to be a stirring scene where our hero marches off to war for glory and fame. Rather, this is the sad state of affairs for combat veterans. Experiencing combat is like going to prison. After a while you adjust to a life of combat the way a prisoner adjusts to life on the inside. If you survive the combat life, readjusting to the normal world can be difficult, sometimes impossible, just like it is for many prisoners who are released after a decade of incarceration. Oftentimes, soldiers who return home wind up signing up for second tours, third tours, fourth tours, not necessarily out of duty or patriotism but because after a certain point the combat life is the only life that makes sense. It’s like an ex-con committing another crime just to return to prison. Ministry is here at the end of ‘The Hurt Locker’ because they bring out this tragedy. This music reflects the pain felt by many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and the twisted normality that is the combat life.

I say these things knowing full well the style of music Ministry plays. I know my opinion of the average American when it comes to war movies, and I remember clearly the accounts I read in 2003 of American tank crews listening to Slayer and Rage Against the Machine as they drove their vehicles into Baghdad. I know what kind of music Ministry, Slayer, and Rage Against the Machine play. I know how politically charged it is and how anti-war it is. I know it. You know it. But this is the average American we are talking about. Average Americans are the ones who do our fighting, and average Americans are going to watch ‘The Hurt Locker.’ All I can think of are the misinterpretations. People are going to watch the end of this movie with our hero walking into another bomb zone while Ministry growls away, and they’re going to think how wonderful it is. Ministry gets you amped. Rage Against the Machine, yo. Let’s go pop some skulls to “Killing in the Name Of.”

Average people will watch this scene soundtracked by Ministry and think about the rush of battle and the birth of heroes. The problems highlighted by ‘The Hurt Locker’ and so many other war movies will be glossed over by ignorance. If you sit through two hours of ‘The Hurt Locker’ and think this is the best idea anybody ever had, just like if you sit through two hours of ‘Platoon’ and feel the urge to invade a village and randomly murder the inhabitants, there is something very wrong with you. Like I keep saying, I speak from prior observation. I have seen too many people react this way to war movies. We witness the adverse effect of what is intended. How is this possible? I haven’t a fucking clue. But the sad fact of the matter is that these people vote, and their vote counts just as much as mine or yours, and this is what brings us back to killing messes time and time again.

After watching ‘The Hurt Locker’ I wish that my only argument could be a simple matter of setting, of continuity, of a character playing a video game system that had not yet been released in 2004. Instead I am troubled by something more dire. Maybe it’s just the last bit of complexity in an already tangled web of clusterfuck. I’ll keep watching war movies if people keep making them. Sadly, though, so will everybody else.

Posted by admin   @   26 May 2010
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May 28, 2010
5:44 pm
#1 Duy :

You need to put up a “SPOILER ALERT!” at the beginning!!!

Jun 1, 2010
6:41 am
#2 Nick Leitzke :

I leave out the most important stuff. I said nothing about a debilitating addiction to taco salads, and I bet you didn’t know that we secretly employ the efforts of Tuscan Raiders to smoke out insurgents hiding in the desert.

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