Movie Reflections: The Hurt Locker
Me, Me, Me: The Human Perspective
Humans are consistently plagued by self centered thinking. What can I do today that will give me the most expected satisfaction? What should I know that is going to affect me directly? Even the way we consume news is affected by this narcissism: Barnett and Reynolds in Terrorism and the Press say that “studies have shown that journalists report more extensively on events and issues that directly affect them” (Barnett 117). This has been a powerful force for our survival and evolution but in the global and technological world of today, it can be a burden to overcome our own nature. And it is important to break free of our inherent narcissism at times. It is with this view that I want to approach The Hurt Locker, war and terrorism.
The Hurt Locker is a suspense-filled, emotion-packed film about soldiers, war, addiction and survival. The very first scene follows a group of three men, American soldiers in Iraq around 2004, during a bomb call eventually culminating in the death of one of the soldiers, the leader and bomb tech. The rest of the film is centered around the new team leader Sergeant First Class William James and his chaotic interactions with the other two soldiers in his team. The film lays out little to no back story for the invasion of Iraq, the histories of the soldiers or the the people of Iraq and in doing so tries to take no moral stand on the Iraq war itself. Instead the film focuses on the intricacies of the characters and the exhausting, harsh and brutal realities of war. One of the more graphic and disturbing scenes places the Army bomb squad unit in an abandoned warehouse where they find a body bomb built using the corpse of a young Iraqi boy. Another scene straps a suicide bomb vest around an Iraqi citizen who comes to the Americans for help. Unfortunately, the bomb is timed and the squad, in order to save their lives, must retreat before they can diffuse it causing the unit to sacrifice the man. These mentally challenging and morally ambiguous questions permeate the film but are very centered around American soldiers.
Despite the political charge around every topic in The Hurt Locker, the U.S.A., government and terrorists are never directly mentioned or given any consideration other than the occasional cry of “USA friendly” by the soldiers. Thus, we are forced to use the characters on each side to get a grasp of what the film says about the West, terrorists and the innocents of Iraq.
The soldiers in the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) unit can fit into some stereotypical character classes common in many war movies. Sergeant First Class William James is a battle-hardened veteran, a former Ranger who has an addiction for the adrenaline rush of war and has become fearless and dangerous because of it. The opening of The Hurt Locker shows a quotation from Chris Hedges, a New York Times war correspondent and journalist: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” This line describes the “addiction” that James has with combat. This conflict is played out after he returns to the states to his ex-wife and child only to almost immediately turn around and start another tour of duty. The other two soldiers in the unit, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge, are tired of the Army and only look to survive until the end of their tour, a meager 30 or so days at the beginning of the film. Sanborn is a strictly by-the-book soldier who clashes drastically with James’ unorthodox and fairly reckless style. By the end of the tour, Sanborn confesses to James that he is tired of the life and death gamble of the EOD unit. In the end, he wants a son, someone to remember him and to be a part of his life. Sanborn is one of the most trustworthy characters in the film and his judgments are generally sound even though he is prejudiced against the Iraqi citizen’s. Throughout the film, he doesn’t make any special effort to help the Iraqi’s, is does anything that is required to keep his team safe and even remarks that the people of Iraq “all look the same.” The final and youngest member of the unit, Specialist Eldridge, is an indecisive soldier who is seeking guidance and a role model in both James and Sanborn. Eldridge suffers the most from the mental anguish of battle and the brutality of war.
America and the West are personified into these three characters throughout the film. America is framed as being multidimensional in its reaction to war but the film says little about the motivation for fighting. The soldiers are generally ignorant of the local culture as Sanborn’s ability to distinguish faces can attest. Eldridge and Sandborn share a moment where they describe what the area needs, “grass”, and it comes off demeaning and giving an air of superiority. The scenery that the soldiers end up in depict the American forces as an occupying force, never welcomed except to make a few dollars. While diffusing bombs, often there are bystanders and citizens being evacuated but the troops are never applauded, only attacked. The overall tone depicts the West as a neutral force in Iraq, never applauded as heroes by the citizens but never verbally condemned.
The word terrorist is never mentioned throughout the film but it is clear that that is what the creators of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are. We rarely see the faces of the terrorists but when we do, they look the same as any other person on the street. They do not seem to have any particular animosity against the troops or anyone else while on camera. They are framed as silent and cold blooded killers with little to no regard for human life or special consideration for important people like fathers, women or children. This is the perspective that an American soldier would have and caters to the American audience. In one scene, a man, begging for help, is found wearing a suicide bomb vest that cannot be removed without special equipment. The bomb is left to detonate by the troops because they do not have the time to save him. The fear spread throughout the population by these wanton attacks is not really depicted in the film but it is clear that the soldiers are constantly battling the mental anguish inflicted by the stress of not knowing when or where disaster can strike. It is clear that anyone at any time can be a terrorist in the film. This drives the seclusion of the troops and their hostility to the native people. The probability of death is too high when sharing information with locals.
From the way that the United States is framed as well as how terrorists and terrorist acts are represented in the film we can see that the film presents a pretty clear definition for terrorism. Terrorism, if we can apply this specific term to the situation, would include the indiscriminate killing of people or destruction of property with no real agenda other than to kill as many Westerners as possible. What separates the troops from the terrorists is the tactics that are employed. The terrorists are willing to use any means necessary to complete their missions. Using children as body bombs as in one of the scenes at a warehouse or using family men who wish to live as suicide bombers are not out of the realm of possibility. The terrorists also have no face, no talking head that spread their demands, they can be anyone at any time which can be extremely frightening. These tactics are beneficial for terrorists when troops are in foreign lands because they cannot trust anyone without taking a significant risk. Terrorists in the film are also not stupid or poorly equipped. During one sniper scene where US and British forces trade gunfire with terrorists, the terrorist sniper kills three men with three shots while the British soldiers cannot eliminate any of them. Over time, the US soldiers eventually prevail but this shows that the terrorists can be effective fighters, especially in unexpected places.
One of the major themes in the film is the large gap between the citizens of Iraq and the soldiers of America and the rest of the Western forces. Giovanni Fazio, a film critic for the Japan Times, put it best when he wrote “American soldiers walk down devastated streets … count the days until their tour is up, and view every Iraqi they see as a potential threat. Iraqis, glimpsed in windows and doorways, are just as wary of the Americans, viewing them with fear, curiosity, or hostile intent. The gulf between them is immense. All that neocon talk about ‘flowers in the streets’ and ‘an Iraqi Marshall Plan’ now seems like so much la-la-faerie-land head-tripping. The only goal left seems to be – survive” (Why the Hurt Locker Hurts…). Indeed, throughout the film it is clear that Sandborn and Eldridge’s only goal is to make it to the end of their tour and return home for they are sick and tired of Iraq and the stress that comes with it. They have little to no motivation to improve relations with the citizens or discourage terrorism in the area. Their only motivation is to do their jobs, be soldiers and take orders by the book to preserve their team. Perspective plays a major role in this situation as it is important to win the hearts and minds of the native people. However when they try, they get killed. Lieutenant Colonel John Cambridge, the base psychiatrist, was vaporized by an IED after trying to move some citizens from their place near a dangerous warehouse. The only prolonged contact between native Iraqi’s and American soldiers is between James and a young boy named Beckham where James develops as a brief father-like figure for him. When James believes he finds the corpse of the boy as a body bomb he is so distraught that he tries to avenge the child but to no avail.
This lack of contact between the locals the people as well as the ability to share culture and promote limited integration is a major problem that could be fostered by increasing press coverage on both sides of the conflict. Media is conspicuously absent from the film and the only sort of promotion of anything occurs when Colonel Reed, a commander of the American soldiers, seeks out James and his EOD unit to congratulate them and find out how many bombs James has diffused in order to boost morale and show the other soldiers how good they can be. Without media in the movie we must look at how the film itself can affect perceptions and combat terrorism and how the press received it.
After having seen the movie with my roommate who is interested in international law and relations, I approached the subject of terrorism and how he felt it was portrayed in the film. In his response he believed that the terrorist’s side was never really shown. He rhetorically asked why the terrorists, the bombers and others, resort to such incredible violence and inconceivable acts? “What drives them to a place where they become so angry with the world that this is the only thing they think they can do?” (Zevely). It is certainly a question that even terrorists may be hard pressed to answer accurately. The Hurt Locker does nothing to address this, rather, it stays as far away from this kind of question as possible while basing its story on the very fact that such suffering is caused by these kind of people. The press and news media take The Hurt Locker as a war movie, relieving it of the need to explain why the war exists at all. Time’s headline for the movie was “The Hurt Locker: A Near-Perfect War Film” and praises James for his bravery, skill and compassion. The article almost sounded like an ad a declared that the Army needs more men like James. The New York Times’ review of the movie places more emphasis on the line between “Peril and Protocol”, pitting Sandborn’s ideology against James’. These are certainly very important aspects of the film, probably more dominant than anything else. Commentary on terrorism is lacking despite it’s importance.
After listening to the talks we have had over the past week in class, it seems that a major objective of terrorists is to polarize a community and silence the centrists. The goal is then to realize a larger polarization on the terrorist’s side. Gitanjali Bakshi in a guest op-ed for Informed Comment believes that not only can terrorism lead to polarization, but polarization can also lead to terrorism (Bakshi: Polarization Breeds Terrorism). With this objective of polarization and the creation of more terrorists via polarization and endless cycle is created. Polarization in societies has been fought for thousands of years whether it be between the rich and the poor, slaves and masters or kings and serfs. This has proven to be a turbulent force many times over.
The film also offers no encouragement for the future, any way to make the dent in the polarization of our societies to combat terrorism other than to fight it physically. Even the fight itself is portrayed in a realistic and disparaging way as soldiers loose their lives and James, with a mad desire to continue fighting, gambles with his life every day. The only glimmer of light in the hot and tan landscape of Iraq is the little boy Beckham and the brief friendship he shares with James. In the end James shuns Beckham in reaction to the body bomb incident and reinforcing the idea that he cannot get attached to the people without having something to lose. Maybe this is the answer that the movie proposes, to promote integration by having an emotional stake in each others lives. It is a good one, nonviolent and noninvasive allowing people to make their own decisions at their own time with whomever they choose. It is similar to education in Three Cups of Tea as it is really educating people about people who are different from them. It is educating people about how to look outside their own perspective, to try on new shoes and walk around for awhile. Aside from physical needs like shelter, clean water and human rights like free speech and liberty, this appears to be the only method of effectively combating terrorists. Killing terrorists only breeds more terrorists and polarizes communities.
This idea is both disparaging and encouraging because the task is so large and so difficult to accomplish yet the idea behind it is so simple it almost seems achievable. It is our duty as humans in this day and age to remove ourselves from the comfort of our perspectives and try to understand others, to promote this abstraction from oneself and become not a homogenized whole as what was once thought of America, but a “mixed salad”, a diverse collection of cultures and people that respect and respond to each other. We must invest in everyone’s future and in doing so we care about not only ourselves but the world and everyone in it.

Works Cited
“Bakshi: Polarization Breeds Terrorism.” Informed Comment, 20 Dec. 2008. Web. 20 April 2010.
Barnett, Brooke and Reynolds, Amy. Terrorism and the Press. New York: Peter Land Publishing, 2009. Print.
Corliss, Richard. “The Hurt Locker: A Near-Perfect War Film.” Time. 4 Sep. 2008. Web. 20 April 2010.
Scott, A. O. “Soldiers on a Live Wire Between Peril and Protocol.” The New York Times. 26 June 2009. Web. 20 April 2010.
“Terrorism, Intolerance and Polarization.” Intuitive Fred888, 3 April 2010. Web. 20 April 2010.
The Hurt Locker. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. Perf. Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty. Summit Entertainment, 2008. Film.
“Why ‘the Hurt Locker’ Hurts – This year’s Best Picture Oscar went to a movei about America at its worst.” The Scoop, 20 March 2010. Web. 20 April 2010.
Zevely, Nick. Personal interview. 15 April 2010.