Saturday, March 20, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Gendering War In The Hurt Locker

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.


Anonymous said...

Sigh. See: the indexical properties of film.

Julie said...

I am wondering if we are not going toward a society which makes acceptable for men to come back with PTSD but denies this reality when it comes down to women. I have never seen anything in media or anywhere else, images or comments about women suffering from the same disorder. Does that mean it's a "truly masculine disorder" and does not exist when talking about female soldiers? Just thinking...

JackDanielsBlack said...

TR, I think you're just saying that this woman didn't make the movie you wanted her to. I don't know for sure, but I suspect there may not be many women in American military bomb-disposal squads in Iraq/Afghanistan (I would be happy to stand corrected if I am wrong). Since this movie was about bomb disposal squads, if my surmise is correct than the lack of women is understandable. If, on the other hand, the movie would have been about American MPs at prisons such as Abu Ghraib, then omitting women would have been unforgivable, since female soldiers were quite prominent in the pictures from that prison. Come to think of it, that might have been a good movie -- how do male and female soldiers do terrible things in Iraqi prisons and then reintegrate into civilian life in the US?

Alan Allport said...

The movie is neither pro-war or anti-war; it just is.

If you mean that The Hurt Locker doesn't stake out an obvious policy position about the Iraq War, then that's true. But I think that's a superficial understanding of what a 'pro' or an 'anti' war film is. A.J. Adler has argued persuasively, for instance, that an anti-war film's critique of war has to transcend the politics of any particular conflict. It might even accept in principle the need to fight certain wars. Its objection is not to war per se but to the sentimentalizing claim (challenged in The Hurt Locker quite effectively) that war is morally redeeming at the personal level.

Unknown said...

"Come to think of it, that might have been a good movie -- how do male and female soldiers do terrible things in Iraqi prisons and then reintegrate into civilian life in the US?"

It did! It was called In the Valley of Elah.

JackDanielsBlack said...

zunguzungu, to an extent you're right. But it seems to me that"In the Valley of Elah" is more focused on Mike and his buddies than on the women soldiers involved. How about a movie focusing on that new and modern version of Lieutenant Calley named Lynndie England? Seems like "In the Valley of Elah" sort of sells female soldiers short in the torture department.

GayProf said...

You know, I never cared for Hurt Locker either. Indeed, I was really surprised when it was nominated, much less won, those Oscars.

I can only hope that Hot Tub Time Machine gets its fair recognition next year.

Anonymous said...

Yes, women can be (and are) on EOD teams in the US Army.

More disturbing to me, a (female) military historian, were the numerous places that glorified/romanticized/made generally thrilling the idea of a solitary, isolated team defusing bombs and running alone through the streets of Baghdad. It's not only wildly inaccurate, but, a dangerous inaccuracy in this case, as it suggests something very different from what we currently understand the nature of the current engagement to be. Patrols are *rarely* smaller than platoon-sized elements, and certainly not smaller than squad-size elements.

Bigelow appears to get the *feel* of combat right--the stress, the split-second decisions, the danger--but gets some critical details wrong. And in this case, the details matter because they purport to tell us about the nature of the conflict.