It may turn out that I am one of the few people in the United States who didn't like The Hurt Locker, a movie about a bomb disposal team in Iraq which is all the rage. Yes, I know it won six Academy Awards, including the first Oscar ever awarded to a woman director, Katherine Bigelow. I realize that I am always supposed to cheer for the woman, but as a feminist historian and cultural critic I found this film terribly disturbing.
(Speaking of history: Bigelow's Wikipedia entry lists her as married to James Cameron; go to his, and you will discover that they divorced in 1991, and Cameron has added one ex and a current wife since.)
There were the good disturbing parts, of course. Bigelow, a director of several action and horror films, was exactly the candidate for the scenes where Staff Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner) has to figure out, not where the bomb is, but how many bombs there are. These moments are positively chilling. Bigelow plays with the scene by trigering the emotions -- suspense, relief, dread and "gotcha" surprise -- that are a staple of the horror film, twisting them to suit and transform another genre. In one early scene James, having defused one IED, begins to pull on a wire only to discover that the bomb he disabled is attached to six others live devices, and he is standing right in the middle of all of them. (Imagine a similar scene where a young woman sticks her hand in a cereal box, looking for a snack, and comes out with a handful of spiders.) The horror if war in Iraq, Bigelow tells us by switching up her genres, makes it historically unique among wars. Similarly, there is a grisly scene where the squad discovers a bomb factory: in an inner room, there is a child's corpse with a bomb sewn inside; James must defuse the bomb by plunging his hands into the freshly butchered body. These scenes are outlandish, but their deftness makes them read true.
That said, one problem with The Hurt Locker is that, for a war movie, it is also strangely dull, despite Bigelow's perfect skills as a director and several lively combat scenes. It relies for its narrative on a series of tense scenes: in each, the bomb disposal team deals with excruciating danger as the devious bombers challenge James' skills as a defuser. Each episode is beautifully crafted, but quite similar; they are interspersed with far too sketchy glimpses into the inner lives of the men who do such work (they drink, they fight, they smoke, they play video games.) Recreation for the squad consists of getting nasty drunk and belting each other in the stomach until one guy collapses (because you have to feel the pain somehow, right? Duh.)
Lesson? The inner lives of these men have been completely evacuated by the work they do; they are dead men walking. As I recall, one soldier actually describes himself as "already dead" early in the film. James, in one of the few scenes where the men speak about something other than their work, cannot seem to remember whether he is actually married or not. He knows he has a son, and that his son has a mother, but the woman's precise social relationship to him is foggy, in contrast to the acute sense of space and time he can access when defusing an IED.
Since I tend to not be interested in men or women who have lost empathy for other living things, it may be my limitation that I had trouble connecting to the characters. However, I also didn't love the lack of plot in The Hurt Locker, even though this is probably a skillful political device if you want to win an Oscar about a charged subject. The movie is neither pro-war or anti-war; it just is. Furthermore, I occasionally found the action outside of the bomb disposal and combat scenes confusing -- like why, for example, does James hunt down the family of the murdered child only to terrorize them and then run away? What does he think they did to deserve him storming their house? Is the point that he doesn't know what he wants from them? Is it supposed to be a metaphor for the whole rotten enterprise? None of this is clear. Or why, at the end of film, does he ends up back in Iraq? I thought he had re-hitched because he was no longer suited for civilian life (a common trope for twentieth century wartime masculinity dating back to Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 World War I novel All Quiet On The Western Front.) My friend, on the other hand, thought he had actually been killed, and was doomed for all eternity to dress in the fat suit and wander the dusty streets of (name your favorite city in Iraq here.)
Like Kimberley Pierce, who directed the haunting and lightly released Stop-Loss (2008), I suspect that Bigelow is trying to break out into the big time (and succeeding, as Pierce did not) by marketing herself as a woman director who "knows men." This may be one explanation for the most more serious historical problem with The Hurt Locker in my view: there are no women in it, minus a brief glimpse of the mother of James' son and shots of Iraqi women who literally scuttle around the streets during the various crises. In these scenes even male Iraqi bystanders have agency: they study American soldiers with empty, unreadable expressions (we are expected to experience the soldiers' constant watchfulness that any one of these men might trigger the bomb; the racist effect is that they all become terrorists.) Given the fact that collectively women have served over 150,000 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and 2,000 of them have won the Bronze Star for valor in combat, I find it inexplicable that there are no uniformed women in this movie. None, not even in crowd scenes where men get to be the stars. In other words, part of what has been erased in The Hurt Locker is what makes this war historically distinctive -- so that Bigelow can hook us with portraits of wounded masculinity from past wars with which we are already (un)comfortable.
Therefore, it mattered that a woman directed this movie because....?
One explanation, and what ought to be of greater concern about The Hurt Locker, is that it skates over much of what is distinctive about this war to beat us over the head with an old story about war: irreparably wounded masculinity. Will James is Natty Bumpo, the man who knows Indians who, as Richard Slotkin taught us, will be central to American regeneration through violence but will forever remain outside civilization as a consequence. Furthermore, the cultural work of The Hurt Locker is similar to that of the Viet Nam movies that Jerry Lembke discusses so intelligently in The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (1998): to persuade us that returning veterans are likely to be crazed, lost misfits who will never fit into society again. Following on a grisly discovery in London that one trendy chain store is selling a Travis Bickle fashion line (here's another link to a US store that will help you dress like the homicidal Viet Nam vet from Martin Scorcese's 1976 hit, Taxi Driver), I think this cultural trend should be of greater concern. Granted, many soldiers returned from Viet Nam terribly damaged, and some remain traumatized by their experiences to this day (although they weren't helped by the fact that shell-shock had been removed from the DSM-III, so they were given diagnoses that articulated their condition as unrelated to their war experiences.) Many men and women have, and will, return from Iraq requiring far more care than I suspect they will get.
But the legacy of Viet Nam movies, as Lembke argues, is the cultural expectation that once a man has gone to war he never really returns to a normal social world. Bigelow underlines this promise by turning James into a one-trick pony, who lectures his baby son about how he has come to only love bombs. There is also an idiotic psychotherapist who appears periodically in the film to remind us that no one --particularly those whose job it is to do so -- cares about what soldiers are going through. The pompous shrink delivers endless platitudes in the face of his client's growing despair and fear, and he refuses to actually engage the world that the bomb disposal unit inhabits. When challenged to do so by his angry client, for unexplained reasons the shrink finally agrees to go out on patrol with the squad. He does a variety of stupid things, utterly unsupervised by anyone, and gets blown up. Predictably, this adds to his client's burden of guilt and shame.
So yes, The Hurt Locker won six Academy Awards -- but in my view it doesn't hold a candle to the Iraq movies that have been overlooked, most prominently In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis, 2007). But the verdict from this historian? Thumbs down.
Cross posted at Cliopatria.