Place of pain


In Iraq the term, “hurt locker” is a colloquialism among soldiers for a place of ultimate pain, a place where you go when a bomb explodes, a prison from which there is no escape except through death.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Award-winning film, The Hurt Locker, traces the final 39 days of deployment of an elite bomb squad within the US Army’s Bravo company. The film begins with a quote by former New York Times war correspondent, Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug”. And Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is addicted. Each of the 873 bombs he’s disarmed is a hit. “What’s the best way to go about disarming one of these things?” asks one of his superiors in the army. “The way you don’t die, sir”, he replies. Just like that – don’t die.

James arrives at Camp Victory in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad – a little ironic since victory is a very distant concept in a war that has been dragging on since 2003. He’s taking over as team leader of the squad after his predecessor died while disarming an IED, or Improvised Explosive Device. Iraqi cities are full of these homemade roadside bombs, which are much harder to detect than conventional bombs, and therefore much deadlier.

James joins Sergeant JT Sanborne (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) in their uphill battle to clear the streets of the city. While Sanborne and Eldridge display a healthy fear in the execution of their task, James seems intent on taunting death. He dismisses the body suit that would protect him should a bomb explode while he is busy working. He keeps a box full of bomb parts or other “stuff” that nearly killed him. There is only one thing he loves, one thing that makes him feel alive – the immanence of death.

This isn’t your average Will Smith action movie. It’s something like a terror-suspense-drama-action. There is no hardcore rock music playing in the background as the hero walks away from an explosion in slow motion. In fact, there’s little background music at all. Because in real life, in a real war, there is no soundtrack. The soldiers don’t brush off the shrapnel and bullets like flies. Real soldiers are shit-scared. They know they can die any minute. There’s no way to tell which of the locals are friends or foes. In one scene a local films the squad as they disarm a bomb and Eldridge wonders whether they will soon be YouTubed (executions of American soldiers by Islamic militants are often broadcast on the web).

The film caused a lot of ‘buzz’ in Hollywood, perhaps because of its competition with, Avatar. While the latter has now become the largest global box-office hit in history, The Hurt Locker is the lowest-grossing film ever to win the Oscar for Best Film. Then there is the fact that the directors, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow were previously married. And Bigelow’s Academy Award for Best Director was the first given to a woman in that category.

There was never any doubt that the Academy would pick either one or the other to walk away with the top award. The question is: which film deserved the golden statuette more? Well, the films are so different – Avatar is a fantasy while The Hurt Locker tries to portray the gritty reality of war. Avatar is visually beautiful and easy to watch. The Hurt Locker is none of these. Avatar is effect-driven. The Hurt Locker is plot-driven. Although film as a medium naturally relies on the visual, giving Avatar the edge, it lacks depth. And then there is the ideology of war film.

Although the Academy praised The Hurt Locker for being “apolitical”, just because a film isn’t overt propaganda, doesn’t mean it isn’t ideologically imbued. American soldiers suffer in Iraq, and the film’s portrayal of the realities of working for a bomb squad is pretty accurate judging by a recent documentary broadcast on the investigative journalism television show, Carte Blanche. However, like the documentary, the does have a one-sided slant. In all likelihood, it may be impossible for an American to make a film that isn’t just a little sympathetic in its attitude towards the war against terrorism. And US Defence Secretary Robert Gates liked The Hurt Locker, which is enough for me to detract ever so slightly from its credibility. However, there’s no denying that the film is less sexy than other Hollywood productions like Kingdom of Heaven or In the Valley of Elah.

The Hurt Locker at least has some indie-cred – it’s low budget and there are no big names attached to it. I didn’t even recognise the director’s name until I Googled it and saw she had directed the surfer cult-classic, Point Break. And the lead actor, Jeremy Renner has also been flying under the radar for a while with supporting roles in films like 28 Weeks Later.

Bigelow does lend some hope that American directors are now trying to distance themselves from rhetoric and instead, tell ‘real’ stories. The upcoming (South African) release Matt Damon’s upcoming Green Zone, which has been huffed and puffed about for its supposed “anti-American” sentiment. We can but hope this is trend…

Director: Kathryn Bigelow – Point Break (surfer cult classic)
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
Awards: 6 Oscars including Best Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
Rating: 4 out of 5

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