This family man, “a good man,” exposes to James the bombs strapped to his body.
It is always a question of perspective. James is seen below from the perspective of the Iraqi who planted the street bombs which James now races to defuse.
James is being videotaped for YouTube, as seen through Sanborn’s scope.
James’ wife has filled to the top her shopping cart with material goods.
James confronts the supermarket’s cereal aisle.
James’ son smiles widely at the jack-in-the-box. When you are young, you love so many things, including your jack-in-the-box. When you are older, you realize that the jack-in-the-box is made of tin. James comes to realize that he now loves only one thing.
James returns to Baghdad, where he again dons the protective bomb suit and marches alone down those same streets, the days yet again counting down the year.
The source of James’ seeming invincibility, his mythology, is that of the Western hero, the cowboy. “Happy trails” are Sanborn’s words to squad leader Thompson as Thompson lumbers off unsuccessfully in the opening scene. “I’ll tell you when I’m standing over [the bomb], cowboy,” James says to Sanborn during their first mission together. Still later he tells Sanborn and Eldridge that they are pursuing the “bad guys,” those responsible for the oil tanker explosion, who are hiding out in the darkness. Moreover, the Ennio Morricone-like musical score played over many of the key scenes — for example, the scene in which James’ unit is pinned down in the desert by sniper fire and the parting scene in the armed vehicle between James and Sanborn — highlights the connection to this mythology. Westerns are a common theme in Bigelow’s films, her heroes frequently acting their part in that mythology even in contemporary settings. Caleb engages in a series of showdowns in the vampire movie Near Dark, and the final shootout in Blue Steel between Megan and Eugene on Wall Street is akin to a gun fight, with cars and a hot dog cart substituted for wagons and prancing horses. James is the loner professional of the Western, temporarily empowering others around him. For example, in a ritualistic act of teaching, he shows Eldridge how to clean off the blood from bullets — “spit and rub” — so that moments later, in contrast to the film’s opening scene, Eldridge is able to kill the Iraqi sniper. While Colonel Cambridge, the consummate army booster, fails to alleviate Eldridge’s pain for having failed his former squad leader — “Thompson, he’s dead, he’s alive, he’s dead, he’s alive” — James through a caring, physical act takes Eldridge into an emotional terrain which relieves him of that pain.
Nevertheless, Bigelow also makes clear her Western hero’s flaws. As James self-consciously tells Eldridge, “everyone is a coward about something.” In contrast to the classic Western in which the little boy looks up to his hero, in The Hurt Locker James eventually rejects the Iraqi boy Beckham after mistaking a young boy’s body which had been wired with a bomb for that of Beckham. While James’ prowess enables him to disarm a series of bombs, he is not omnipotent. Pursuing those whom he believes have wired Beckham’s body, he finds himself racing through the darkened streets of Baghdad alone and in a near panic, having been pummeled by an unknown Iraqi woman. In a parallel to the film’s opening scene in which a bomb explosion kills James’ predecessor, the last scene shows James helpless in the face of the multiple locks which secure a bomb to a family man crying for help and in which James is himself nearly killed. There is despair in James’ plea to the “fucking dead man” that “I can’t do it! I’m sorry!” Furthermore, the colonel who applies the seemingly heroic term “wild man” to James is responsible for the cold blooded, off-screen killing of an Iraqi soldier. The film’s final shot is of James encased in his protective suit, alone again, facing down the “bad guys” in yet another shootout. That James is Bigelow’s hero is clear; that his choice to return to the Iraqi war is less than cathartic is equally clear.
In that respect Bigelow’s movie is self-consciously about herself and the limits of her moviemaking. It is no coincidence that many of the film’s scenes resemble the making of a movie, with James’ squad sealing off an area while Iraqi citizens watch from the sidelines, often themselves filming those directing the drama and thereby introducing an element of discomfort. For example, during the defusing of the car bomb next to the U.N. compound, Sanborn and Eldridge are clearly unnerved by the videographer, both a voyeur to and a likely participant in the violence. In the factory where the squad finds the young boy’s body wired with a bomb, we see the bombers’ tools left in the open, the unexploded ordinances, the cigarette still smoking, the camera on the tripod, all left behind only moments ago, as though caught mid-shoot. The chase through the darkened streets for the bombers of the nighttime, crater-like blast is filmed with self-conscious voyeurism, Sanborn’s “torch” momentarily lighting up the darkness so that James and Sanborn can kill the Iraqis and rescue the abducted Eldridge.
Like her hero James, Bigelow is engaged in a project in which the reality of others inevitably seeps in through the voyeurism of those outside of her scope, notwithstanding her efforts to contain all she sees. That is the significance of the shot of the Iraqi who rushes down a flight of stairs in a race to set off the bomb, which James in the meantime rushes to defuse, clipping one wire after the next; or of the Iraqi, long-range snipers who calmly try kill James and Sanborn from their window from afar, even as James and Sanborn do likewise from behind their sand dune. Throughout the film Bigelow shows us all perspectives — a shot from behind Iraqi snipers or a videographer taking pictures of Eldridge, a close-up of the eye of the cab driver focusing on James holding a pistol on him, a long shot of James’ squad from behind the bars of a window, a foreshortened close-up of a white building seen through the scope of a rifle, or a helicopter seen high above through the visor to Thompson’s helmet. “There’s lots of eyes on us,” at one point Sanborn says with fear in his voice. As an artist seeking to make meaning out of this war, Bigelow has no final say in its meaning; her understanding is placed in context by the countdown of days remaining which ends and then begins again when James chooses to return to the war, a never ending rotation of 365 days.
Bigelow offers no alternate universe in which she finds solace. James, like all of Bigelow’s flawed heroes, can touch and feel the physical with heightened awareness. These include Mae who can hear the nighttime and see the brilliance and immediacy of the stars a billion light years away, or Bodhi who can revel with his group in a free fall from on high and enjoy alone the adrenalin rush of the 50-year wave. James, too, lives from moment to moment in a physical universe in which he is unafraid of death. That is the source of his courage, but also of his isolation from those around him. Bigelow, as a member of a generation raised to believe that all things material are hers, through her hero comes to reject that comfort. In Blue Steel, it is in the local supermarket that Megan comes face to face with death in the form of a petty robber and unknowingly encounters Eugene, her doppelganger. In a similar way, in The Hurt Locker it is appropriate that James, returning stateside, experiences his epiphany in the over-abundantly stocked, suburban supermarket. Later, cleaning out the clogged gutters of his home and fixing lunch with his wife, he passes the time and time passes him by. He sits blankly next to a television set playing the “snow” of no content.
There is no more poignant scene than that of James with his baby son and the jack-in-the-box so cherished by his son. When we grow up, we love so much, including mommy, daddy, pajamas and the jack-in-the-box, he tells his uncomprehending son, but as we age they no longer seem so special. We come to love less and less, realizing that even the jack-in-the-box is made of pieces of tin — or plastic, like the Radio Shack pieces which James keeps beneath his bed. Thus, James comes to embrace death. And therein lies his social madness. As Eldridge accurately observes, James isn’t very good with people but is a good warrior. While a cowboy, he is also a “rock and roller” associated with heavy metal music that dampens the intensity of the world around him. He rejects the comforts of his social world, the soothing music of the supermarket, a world which insists that death is nowhere to be found and that we are the master of all that we survey, in short, a world that lacks the imagination to see what is beyond our own gaze. In that rejection, though, he finds himself alone and marching inexorably to his own death, a bleak ending for Bigelow’s stated hero.
Kathryn Bigelow co-directed her first film, Loveless, a film about wandering bikers who disrupt the seeming peacefulness of an out of the way town, when she was 31. She directed The Hurt Locker when she was 57. Her films represent a struggle to find value as she ages, turning increasingly to the view that the quixotic and the immediacy of death provide the only certainties and hence values to be sought. In The Hurt Locker she finds no salvation in that view, but the drug-induced state in which she takes pleasure (“war is a drug”), so reminiscent of the 60s, offers her and her characters the only escape from the boredom and constraints of social norms. The sometimes emotional schizophrenia of her films, the psychosis of her characters, such as the self-aware Sergeant William James, display her continued dissatisfaction with those values, even as she acknowledges that no others can be found in her world.