I saw The Hurt Locker this past week with a friend of mine here in Delhi – my wife was not interested in seeing another war movie, not that I’m a big fan either. Actually, I don’t see as many movies these days, not like I used to, especially at the theatre. And, of course, here in India, it’s not as easy to keep up with all the latest films, especially non-Bollywood fair. I guess The Hurt Locker was showing here because of its widespread critical acclaim. Despite the accolades, including Best Picture at the Oscars, I didn’t know much about what to expect from the movie.
Well, I really enjoyed it. I’d like to say that I found it to be quite realistic, though that would be ridiculous coming from someone who has never been to war. The Hurt Locker is not exactly about war, but it is about an American EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit in the Iraq war. Basically, they are the guys who diffuse bombs, especially of the IED sort (that’s Improvised Explosive Device). So, having very little experience with bombs, I have no idea how accurate the movie was in terms of its information about explosives or in regard to the way the American military deals with them. I guess what I mean when I refer to realism is how the movie deals with the human element, which as a human being I can give honest attestation. I liked how it portrayed people and relationships. In that way, I found myself identifying with the characters, especially the main character, Sergeant James. He’s depicted as a typical person, with a complex personality, with the usual up’s and down’s, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. I can relate to that. James excels at certain things, then he disappoints. He’s good at some stuff, notably his work, and not so good at other stuff, even important stuff, like marriage and fatherhood. Sometimes he’s an ass, and a bad leader, but at other times his generous spirit shines, his carefree attitude attracts and his self-sacrifice provides a model of solid leadership. Technically and artistically, Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of Sergeant James was definitely a highlight of the film.
As far as storytelling is concerned, this wasn’t so much a plot-driven movie, although I quite liked the story and the pace. The intensity, of course, was consistently there, with the ever-present prospect of something exploding, both bombs and human tempers. I also appreciated the cinematography (which is usually something you should say when writing about films, or something on the contrary, as in, “the cinematography was not so good.”). I enjoyed the Middle Eastern cityscapes and the desert scenery. (It was also good to see Ralph Fiennes back in the desert, as in The English Patient.) On occasion, however, the story tended to be predictable (which, I agree, sometimes life can be like that) as when the soldier tells the doctor/psychiatrist that he doesn’t know what it’s like to be on the frontlines; then the doc accompanies the soldiers on one mission, in an effort to identify with them, and ends up getting killed. It’s classic, formulaic, which if overdone can tend to make the viewers detach themselves emotionally, which it did for me.
Again, the strength of the movie was the characterization, and that is where I found the most meaning. I liked the interaction James had with Iraqis, not that this is a big feature in the film. But it is there – his friendship with Beckham, the boy who sells him DVD’s and plays football with him, the patience he has in his standoff with the taxi driver, and even his treatment of the suicide bomber whom he is not able to save. These contacts are personal and genuine, and I felt that they were significant in terms of the film’s perspective on war. In terms of the specific work of the bomb team, of course, it’s mostly the locals who are dying from these explosions, though they are supposedly targeting the enemy military forces. It’s one of the great enigmas of war. But for James, the fact that real people are dying is what seems to motivate him. When, back in the US, he shares with his ex-wife about why he wants to return to the war, he tells a story about innocent children being killed by a suicide bomber. Within the scope of his character, his work is not so much about winning the war – it’s about saving lives, whether they be civilians or soldiers, UN workers, or even reluctant suicide bombers. In that way, the genius of the movie was that it came across as being more about human beings than about Americans and Iraqis. Similarly, in my opinion, the movie could not be squarely called pro-war or anti-war, another quiet triumph.
In a very personal way, I loved the sequence at the end of the movie when James returns to the US and faces some of the realities of life there. There are many significant differences between his returning to the US from a war in Iraq and my returning to Canada from my work in India, but I found myself again identifying with his experience. I have felt out of place when back at home. I have stood transfixed in grocery stores, overwhelmed by the choices. I have found the everyday glory of life in the West to be boring at times. I have found myself telling the stories of far away places to people who were sincerely unable to relate or engage. I have accepted the strange desire to give up the comforts of home and to embrace the insecurities of life somewhere else.
Then, as the movie closes with James’ return to war, the idea is clear that this is where he belongs, where he is needed, not because he believes in war, but because he believes that he is good at what he is doing. He has said something similar to his son, back in the US, that he knows what he loves. He plays a simple role, but it’s an important role, and it’s a role that, for whatever reasons, others aren’t able to play as well as him. He’s just really good at it. If there’s a simple message that I heard loud and clear by the end of The Hurt Locker, it’s this – that we should be doing the thing we are good at it. Sometimes, life is just that uncomplicated.