March 11, 2010
My college classmate Roger, a physician at the Fort Lewis Army base in Tacoma, Wash., came for a few days' visit early last November. In addition to the plays, concerts, and tourist sites he wanted to see, he searched the movie listings for one film: The Hurt Locker.
"It's a story about an Army bomb squad in Iraq," he told me. "A friend of mine recommended it — he's a very thoughtful ex- Green Beret. It's not playing anywhere in the Seattle area, but it's got to be here in New York."
It was, at only one place, an art-house in the Village. We went to an early-evening weekday show. The theater was practically empty, and most of those that were there were folks like us, Vietnam-era Boomers, some of them apparent veterans, a few with disabilities.
"I think it's hard to find this movie because most people don't want to deal with Iraq and Afghanistan," he guessed as we settled in with popcorn and sodas. "They don't want to hear about it or think much about it because it doesn't affect them directly. They go to the movies to escape, not to face hard questions."
So it was a big surprise to both of us that The Hurt Lockerswept the Oscars last Sunday. Now venues nationwide will multiply, and people will go just to see what they'd ignored all these months.
They won't be disappointed.
What makes this film unique and prize-winning is that it's not your standard war film — but that's because Iraq was not your standard war. In conventional war movies, as in conventional wars, there is a defined, uniformed enemy engaging in defined battle; battles are followed by relative calm, a time of release before the next conflict begins. In this film, as in Iraq itself, there is little release, and in that sense it falls more in the genre of suspense or horror. The tension is unrelieved because, as in a horror movie, no one really knows who or what the enemy is or when or where it will strike next: terror on every side.
Scenes showing the obsessed explosives expert Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner, delicately unearthing improvised explosive devices and deftly snipping detonation wires keep your stomach in knots, and when the last critical wire is cut, you want to sigh in relief — but you can't. Your stomach knots again as the camera pans past alleyways and doors and balconies where Iraqis stand looking, watching, some with camcorders and some with cell phones, then turns to the three- member squad, themselves panning the same surroundings with their rifles.
There is no respite to the anxiety because it's clear that any one of these ordinary-looking people, man, woman, or child, could be a killer.
It is this unrelenting uncertainty that makes the film an overpowering experience. It is also the real-life uncertainty in the minds of the troops that has surely contributed to the extraordinarily high incidence of psychological trauma among our soldiers — one in five, by some estimates. It is horrible enough to kill a uniformed enemy, but there the guilt can be salved by clearly knowing exactly who the enemy are. In the conflicts in Iraq and now Afghanistan, the enemy could be anyone at all.
Prior to his medical career, Roger served as an officer in the Army; today he continues to serve those wounded in combat, both physically and psychologically. He knows things from the inside.
The other day, he e-mailed me: "This morning I heard a report about one of the hardest-hit platoons in Iraq, covered by a journalist who wrote a book about them called They Fought for Each Other. It was heartbreaking to listen to the trauma they had to endure. The platoon had been so over-exposed to IED's and death that they actually refused to go out on patrol one day, as they all met with a psych counselor and told him they would likely shoot anyone in sight due to their anger, and they felt it would be inadvisable to go out. The psychologist agreed, but the commander didn't, and they still didn't go out — a small act of mutiny which went unpunished. In the end, the commander actually praised the soldiers' judgment in staying behind."
Months after seeing it, the film was still playing in his head as it was in mine, as the invasion of Marja in Afghanistan began, the roads to which and in which were strewn with Taliban IED's.
In another e-mail, Roger wrote: "One line that impressed me in the movie was when Sgt. James is disarming a bomb and encounters the recalcitrant Iraqi driver who doesn't want to get out of his way. After finally forcing him to back up his car by putting a gun to his head, the sergeant's comrades jerk the Iraqi out of his car and beat him up. The sergeant says, ‘If he wasn't a terrorist before, he is now.' My impression is that war brutalizes everyone it touches — the good guys and the bad guys, from whatever perspective you define those terms. While we praise the sacrifices of our military people, we don't realize the physical and psychological devastation ravaged upon them by repeated ‘deployments' to war zones, especially to war zones as weird as those we are in now."
The Hurt Locker captures that weirdness precisely.