The Hurt Locker’s Addiction to Detachment, and Ours

by zunguzungu

I’m less interested in The Hurt Locker than in the kind of problem it faces: how do you make a movie about an event that we have so thoroughly forgotten, ignored, and under-articulated as the Iraq war? The important point to make about media narratives of the Iraq war is not that they are biased — though they are, naturally — but that they are disappearing, that the media isn’t talking about the war very much at all anymore. It has become, for the popular majority of Americans, less a real war about which it is possible to have a real opinion than something vaguely unspeakable and for which no narratives quite apply. Part of it is that the politics are so strange; the war’s original supporters have now mostly given up defending the original broken-kettle reasons while the president who was elected to end it, hasn’t; it is a war we are in, which no one wants us to be in, but for which no one has any idea how not to be in. And there we are, especially as it’s a war that has gone on so long as to have become normal, a permanent state of emergency that has, as such, ceased to be a state of emergency, ceasing to be anything at all.

It may be that this was what, on some level, certain people wanted, of course, but I’m less interested in the pure politics of the event than in the representational conundrum that Kathryn Bigelow’s film is stuck in. I don’t think it’s a great film, first of all; its characters are fairly tired war-movie clichés (another cowboy who gets results? really?), its ticking time-bomb scenarios are suspenseful in almost the cheapest way possible — a literal ticking time-bomb — and the dialogue ranges from the bathetic to the banal (the line “I’m too old for this shit” badly needs to be retired). The overarching plot structure is supremely meh, since it turns out that going home to his wife and kid — which the “x days left” move has given narrative centrality — is going to be all emasculating and shit and stuff; when he tries to tell his wife (described as “not dumb; just loyal”) about the awesome-ness of bomb turning-off, her narrative function is to coldly look away and maybe order him to fetch cereal or chop mushrooms because a woman just can’t understand, you see.

But more than that, the movie can’t seem to decide what kind of a hero or anti-hero it wants its main character to be; is he teh awesome cowboy who gets results because he breaks the rules? Or is he a supreme asshole who puts the satisfaction of awesome bomb turning-off over the well being of his buddies and success of the mission? Manifestly, he is both, and the movie can’t decide if the young soldier’s eventual “fuck you” to him is where it wants to place its narrative emphasis or if Sanborn’s apparent acceptance of him is the endpoint of the movie’s narrative arc, the “how do you do it?” question that gets answered in the annoying because completely right “I don’t think about it.” Certainly he persists; the film ends with the bomb-turner-off in his suit and all seems to be well with his world, while both the soldier who has turned against him and the soldier who has accepted him fade away.

Like America, I think, this movie needs to have it both ways, which the penultimate man vs. woman narrative turn lets it do: it wipes the slate clean by making a movie that has been about men fighting with each other (the exact same Kirk-Spock dilemma, in fact, mediating the same Bush-Obama problem) into a narrative about a beset man’s melodrama of escape from the “encroaching, constricting, destroying society” of a particular feminine and domestic influence. The former story would bring up uncomfortable problems; the latter solves them in a comfortably Dodge-Charger-American-Man sort of way.

I haven’t gotten into what is good about the movie because I don’t really want to praise it; it isn’t a great movie is basically my bottom line. It isn’t a masterpiece of realism (as Brian Mockenhaupt points out, as Kate Hoit argues, and as Michael Kamber piles on) but I’m less interested in this as failure than as an indication of what kind of dream-work people are doing to defuse the problem of an Iraq war that can’t really be narrated, in the kind of competence that I think the movie both shows and argues to be the only way to tell this kind of story. People will and have called this the best movie about the Iraq war, but for one thing, what they really mean is that it’s the only Iraq war movie that’s even vaguely watchable, which is a very different thing: most Iraq movies suck because they try to tell an expansive story of the war and fail; the ones that succeed (say this one, or In the Loop) work because they scale down their ambitions and bracket off so much, emphasizing instead the claustrophobia of a particular tiny perspective (and then render that ultra-subjectivity as the objective realism of experience). By talking about how little you can see, they approach something like a truth, a pragmatic truth (as naming the protagonist “William James” sort of hamfistedly suggests).

Some critics view this as the movie’s success; David Denby says that “the specialized nature of the subject is part of what makes it so powerful, 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”; the fact that “The Hurt Locker narrows the war to the existential confrontation of man and deadly threat” is what it has going for it. I would say that this might be why audiences like it, but I’m massively less sanguine about making the Iraqi people disappear and turning a real war into a video-game battle against a robot enemy, against bombs that apparently explode themselves; allowing us to forget the royal clusterfuck that the war has represented for the massive masses of human beings that live in the country we’ve broken and bought is not, I would dare to suggest, a particularly good thing. David Edelstein notes that “The question of what the hell these good men are doing 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,” but makes the claim that this isn’t just the movie’s fantasy-land but rather that “this movie rises above its preachy counterparts [because it shows] why [the film’s protagonists] don’t call that into question themselves.” Again, color me unimpressed; the films protagonists don’t call that into question because they are too busy fighting a war, but the fact that soldiers have no opportunity to talk politics is not a reason we shouldn’t. We are not soldiers; the way movies like this one convince us to think a soldier’s perspective on war is the only real one, in fact, is the most pernicious thing about them.

What all these critics recognize, then, is the place we, as a country, are at with respect to the Iraq war: it really does exist, but its reality is a thing for which narrative is insufficient to our desire. Yet even as we turn away from that reality, we do at least recognize that we are not seeing it, and as it intrudes on our consciousness, we — narcissists all — reflect on that feeling of detachment. Which is why this is a movie about an addiction to adrenaline and closeness to the action: in noticing that feeling of distance, of detachment, of a war conducted at sniper range against absent enemies manifest only in their IED’s, The Hurt Locker fulfills a wish to be as close as possible not to the war but to that experience of detachment itself, an addiction to video games because they only feel real and, this, a cinema of truthiness.