War is a videogame for this bomb squad.
The Iraqi who will remotely detonate the bomb which kills the U.S. squad leader is seen through the scope of Specialist Eldridge, who is unable to kill the Iraqi.
In contrast, the squad’s new leader, Sergeant William James, announces his desire for experiencing war upfront and personal by immediately removing the plywood boards to his living quarters.
James controls the battle scene—like the bank robbers who pose as ex-Presidents in Point Break.
Never distancing himself from what he does, James kicks open the car trunk filled with bombs.
Kathryn Bigelow has directed only eight films in 28 years, and most are best described as B-movies, genre movies about bikers (The Loveless), vampires (Near Dark), cops (Blue Steel), surfers (Point Break), submarines (K-19: The Widowmaker) and the like. While they seemingly lack any relation to one another, nevertheless, like the best of the old-school, U.S. directors who preceded her and have also worked in the area of action films — such as Sam Fuller, Anthony Mann, and Sam Peckinpah — or in disparate genres — such as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock — Bigelow’s films strikingly reiterate plots in different settings and thereby engage us in her most personal concerns, both her ideals and her demons. A summary of her earlier films is set out in an appendix to this essay. [open appendix in new window] Bigelow is at heart a cultural critic. Born in 1951 and a child of the 60s, she has consistently explored the divide between the social norm and a group of outsiders who have sought to avoid the entrapment of material comfort as embodied in the traditional family. That her films have repeatedly portrayed characters who are doubles of one another, the one the more extreme version of the other, doppelgangers — Megan and Eugene in Blue Steel, Caleb and Mae in Near Dark or Johnny Utah and Bodhi in Point Break — reflects her emotional schizophrenia, wanting the comfort of the former character but knowing full well its price and hence her sympathies for the latter. The Hurt Locker is a key film for Bigelow. She openly acknowledges her commitment to the character who chooses to stand outside of the norm, notwithstanding the admitted lunacy and self-destructiveness of that choice.
The Hurt Locker begins on the streets of Baghdad where a U.S. bomb squad is in the process of trying to defuse or safely blow up an IED. The opening shot immediately disorients us, since it shows a street from the viewpoint of the squad’s video robot. The scene ends in an equally disorienting way when squad leader Sergeant Thompson, played by A-actor Guy Pearce, is unexpectedly killed. Bigelow’s viewpoint is made clear from the outset. She shows how the United States fights its wars from a distance through the bomb squad’s failed use of the “bot” and underscores the U.S. army’s employment of the stereotypical male sexual swagger through the “hello mama” and “pretend it’s your dick” dialogue. Moreover, it is hard not to view the “bot” and think of other such instruments which have distanced Bigelow’s characters from what is around them, such as the FBI computers in Point Break, which prove to be a poor substitute for FBI agent Pappas’ instincts, and the “clips” in Strange Days, which isolate Lenny Nero from those around him and become his customers’ addictive and fatal substitute for living. It is not surprising, therefore, that Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), later seen playing a video war game, is unable in this opening scene to shoot the Iraqi combatant with the cell phone and thereby causes, albeit indirectly, the death of his squad leader. War is never personal for these soldiers but only experienced from afar.
In that context the difference represented by (and the dislike for) Thompson’s replacement, Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a name both appropriate and not without irony, is foreshadowed by James’ removal of the plywood boards from his living quarters, since he both wants the sunlight and refuses to separate himself from the risk of incoming mortars. That he later rejects the “bot” and dons the protective bomb suit, making upfront and personal his defusing of the bombs, condemns him in the eyes of his men. Not surprisingly, when he later disposes of even his protective suit while defusing a car bomb planted next to an U.N. compound, he enrages his second in command, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). That, of course, in turn, results in James’ further removal of his communication headset. James’ stripping away of the mechanical accoutrements of war represents a rebellion against U.S. technology and as such poses a psychological threat to those who literally hide around corners and in alleyways when exposed to the immediacy of the dangers of war. It is entirely appropriate that Sanborn later contemplates killing James from afar, speculating on how the army would later study his death so as to learn how not to repeat such a “mistake.”
That Sanborn does not do so, however, suggests how Sanborn is also attracted to James. The scene in which James and Sanborn pound one another in a nearly drunken stupor does not simply evoke “the link between sexuality and violence among isolated men in groups”[open endnotes in new window] but literally represents the love between two men of shared aspirations, if of unequal courage and commitment to those aspirations. It is reminiscent, for example, of a similar scene between Utah and Bodhi on the Australian beach which concludes Point Break. Howsoever they are opposites of one another, James is also Sanborn’s doppelganger.
While James tells Sanborn and Eldridge about his son and ex-wife, with the picture of his son and his wedding ring both in the box beneath his bed and mixed in with the plastic bomb devices, Sanborn, a seeming career soldier, in turn, tells how he is not ready for a son. While James prizes those plastic bomb devices, his only possessions being that which has nearly killed him, Sanborn sees them only as “shit from Radio Shack.” James is the “wild man,” the character who has seen civilization and will have none of it, while Sanborn views war as simply civilization’s extension. The movie’s narrative represents how Sanborn is tempted by James’ viewpoint and rejects it by the movie’s end.
Tellingly, in contrast to Point Break’s Bodhi, an earlier “modern savage,” Bigelow makes James, not Sanborn, her focus, central character and hero. She humorously mocks civilization in the form of the appropriately named Colonel John Cambridge (Christian Camargo), a Yale psychologist-soldier who tries to communicate with the Iraqis and for his efforts immediately thereafter disappears in a bomb explosion. Thus, too, Sanborn during the course of the film, while expressing incomprehension at how James continues to “roll the dice,” acknowledges that his own return to stateside represents his conformity to a culture of passivity and stasis. While he asks James in their final scene together how James takes the risks day after day, Sanborn symbolically refers to returning stateside as crossing over to “the other side,” an ironic reference to the death-like existence that James encounters and flees following his return home. Nevertheless, Sanborn decides to father a son, because supposedly otherwise “nobody will give a shit,” a decision that he has acknowledged he is not ready for and one ironically announced while Iraqi children throw stones at the armored vehicle in which Sanborn and James sit. Lacking what it takes to put on the protective suit of war, he will don the suit of civilization.