Our Main Man in a tight spot. But for this man, the main man in the film, it gives him a certain high.
The hands of a surgeon: James defusing a bomb.
The “salt ‘n pepper” ever-lovin' pair.
James and his wife home together and worlds apart: James has just said: “You know they need more bomb techs [in Iraq].” Wife, handing him some carrots, responds: “You wanna chop these up for me?”
James suiting up to go check out a bomb. “Why not use the robot,” asks Sanborn. Pussy question for the man.
The “bot” as they call it. Something James never uses.
Sanborn has just told James that they need to “communicate” more. James is saying: "We goin’ on a date, Sanborn?”
James is showing the detonation device of a bomb he has just defused to the Iraqi who seems to have been going to detonate that very bomb. James is not angry, just amused: “I got there first,” he grins.
James facing down the “Hadji” — Dodge City in Baghdad.
by Sam Whitsitt
The film focuses primarily on a White, Tennessee “trailer-trash” loner who loves the razor’s edge, is a cocksure loose cannon, but when it comes to defusing bombs, he’s the man. He’s got the hands of a surgeon, and his head in the bomb as well as in the heads of his bombers.
His name is William James—a name stretched too far in wanting to cover this country boy in the pragmatic mantle of the eponymous U.S. philosopher—but he is masterfully played nonetheless by Jeremy Renner. While the character of Will or James—he will be called both—is loosely based on the life of a real U.S. soldier (or soldiers) whom screen-writer Mark Boal got to know as an embedded journalist with the bomb squads in Iraq, that person’s (or persons’) life has been re-woven into the tapestries of at least two major narratives that have long defined for us the White, American, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male (yes, the WASP male is still quite alive without needing to refer to its parody in the Tea Party).
These two narratives are themselves closely intertwined and give us unique forms of American WASP macho. One storyline has a White man who may have once-had-a-woman but ends up alone—as immortalized by John Wayne, last scene of The Searchers (1956), framed by the doorway of domesticity outside of which he pauses, as if tempted but then turns his back on. The other has a White male who never-had-a-woman romping through the world with his dark-skinned male, bosom buddy, as most famously cast in our history by James Fenimore Cooper who gave us Natty Bumppo and his beloved Indian male companion, Chingachgook.
What Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker gives us are the true avatars of both these narratives. We will have our White man Will, who has both woman and child but more than willingly gives them up to be as alone as John Wayne in The Searchers, but lovin’ it in a near-psychopathological way. And, we will also have Will the White guy bonding with the handsome, Aunt Jemima-raised, kept-off-the-street, straight-laced, play-by-the-books Black guy, J.T. Sanborn, finely executed by Anthony Mackie. The film ends with William James alone but jauntily striding forward to undo things—which is to say, to undo not only wires on bombs but likewise ties that would bind him to wife and child back home, for in undoing one he justifies undoing the other—and looking in his space-age anti-bomb suit very much like a snappy but peculiarly asexual Buzz Lightyear. However, what drives the story forward is the narrative line of the bond between the White man and a dark-skinned male Other. It is this “salt ‘n pepper” combo that, according to Leslie Fiedler, is the truest and oldest love story concerning White American male cultural identity—a relationship he brilliantly described in his 1948 article, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in Huck Honey,” a title which paraphrases what the protective “Nigger Jim” would murmur to his Huck honey every time it seemed Huck was slipping away from the safe place of the raft into danger.
This relationship is not simply a narrative about how a Black man (or dark-skinned male Other) and a White guy go from hating each other to becoming butt-slapping buddies, but rather, as Fiedler explains, this was and still arguably is America’s true love story. Beginning as noted above with James Fenimore Cooper, that formidable American myth-maker who in 1826 in The Last of the Mohicans gave us the White man of the forest, Natty Bumppo, bonding with his beloved male Indian companion, Chingachgook, we have continued to produce those memorable, loving, “salt ‘n pepper” pairs. These include, to name a few, Melville’s Ishmael in Queequeg’s dark arms, “Nigger” Jim and Huck, the Long Ranger and Tonto, the “salt ‘n pepper” tv series (Miami Vice (1984)), movies (Lethal Weapon, beginning 1987), etc.. This goes on right up to The Hurt Locker with, yes, a scene in which we will have a Black man, sitting in the passenger’s seat of their beat-up pick-up (aka Humvee), tellin’ his / her White man at the wheel, with a voice that’s all honey chile sugah, saying: “I wanna a son… I wanna a little boy, Will,” sounding as if that “he” was truly an everlovin’ “she.”
Yes, I am exaggerating, but just somewhat. And if the gentle reader will let me step back a moment, I will give you a frame to that scene which if you enter even just partially, will make it impossible for you ever to watch that scene again and listen to that honey chile sugah voice without thinking that, well, yes—they do in fact make one loving pair!
That was Fiedler’s point. The true U.S. love story is not that between a man and a woman; it is not same-sex gay. It is that promise of eternal youth, freedom, love without issue, friendship without entanglements, life undisturbed by the female who would tie the male down with children, the hearth, home—all intolerable for the true American hero. (One can pretty much count on one hand the stories and films that have a “cowboy” hero standing by a live woman at the end of the film—of course this is changing as those students of the American western, like Kevin Costner (Open Range, 2003) and Ed Harris (Appaloosa, 2008) , consciously play off this tradition). Or rather, this was the true love story as imagined by the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male; and director Bigelow and writer Mark Boal deliver it full-throttle. But in some ways they have given their script too much gas, for there is a certain tension between these two narrative possibilities of the lone White male, and the White male and his true friend, the Dark-skinned Other. Boal and Bigelow seem to want both, but then one more than the other. Both Bigelow and Boal are peculiarly mesmerized by their own creation of William James, the White solitary “wild man,” as he will be called by an admiring superior officer. And their own fascination seems to demand a change in the other narrative which results in the Dark-skinned Other, J.T. Sanborn, who should be on the same footing with James, finding himself beneath, and it is here that we have a perverse and disturbing twist to this classic American love story.
But let us now turn to how these tensions get played out in the film. The way the bomb squad works is that there are three men in a unit: Will, J.T., and another White male, Owen Eldridge, played by Brian Gerarghty, whose character has some pressing psychological issues with fear, killing and dying. When they respond to a call, they arrive in their Humvee. Then two stay behind, Eldridge and Sanborn, while Will, team leader and a few grades above the others in a somewhat tenuous hierarchy of command, is the one that goes out into the action zone. That he always does suit up to go out and get his hands on the bomb rather than their using robots and other devices to detonate bombs is partially necessary for the film’s action and a display of Will’s character.
This puts Eldridge and Sanborn holding down the safe place, the Humvee, and watching James’ back, which requires that they all stay in contact. But James seems to be oblivious to this point. In one particular scene tension is rapidly mounting back at the Humvee and everywhere around the bomb site, and an increasingly nervous Sanborn demands that James “come in” to let him know how things stand on his end. James simply gives Sanborn the finger, rips off the headset thereby cutting all verbal communication, and concentrates on the task at hand. He succeeds, of course, but this is the stuff of high tension and will lead Sanborn to subsequently punch James once back at the Humvee. Will simply takes it in stride—as if he recognizes and acknowledges Sanborn’s weakness when it comes to fear, for Will seems to be engaged with fear in a quite different zone of intimacy.
And in the end, as we have noted, the film is about this singular individual who has in a sense gone over to the “other” side. Not at all that he has taken up with the enemy, but it’s as if he needs them more than he needs his own side. All his side does is hamper him in getting his hands on those bombs, which his true buddies, the enemy, keep making for him to defuse. Without them, where would the thrill be? A certain recognition of this perverse logic—how Good must ensure that Evil survives since how could Good be Good without it—is played out right at the beginning of the film in a new take on the cowboy showdown on a dusty deserted main street in Kansas. This time it takes place right in the new “West-gone-East” Baghdad with a Lee Van Cleef-type Iraqi careening through road blocks, refusing to stop (and quite unbelievably not being blown away by wads of trigger-happy U.S. GIs), and then coming face to face with our man William James in his Buzz Lightyear bomb squad suit, aiming a cocked .45 right at the head of Mr. Van Cleef. He stops. It’s a showdown. But it’s clear that Buzz Lightyear—uhh Will—does not want to kill this, his potential enemy. Will will force him to back down; turn around, give himself up, as it were, since he just seems frightened—because in the game that William James plays, he needs his enemy. At the beginning of the film there is a quote from Chris Hedges, one of the embedded journalists in Iraq, that
This can certainly be the case, but it is not quite the case with James. That is, it is not “the rush of battle,” it is not so much killing the Other that gives him a thrill, but rather that need to triumph over what will be, in his survival, the savvy attempts of the Other to kill him. A triumph over Death—a perverse logic not of the kicks of killing but the kick of escaping a death the Other has planned for him. At one point in the film, James shows Owen and J.T. all the detonating devices of the bombs he has defused. He holds one up and says,
Of course it is also this kind of personal need Will has to get face-to-face with the bomb that leads Sanborn to seriously contemplate killing James, and with some good reason since Will’s actions can indeed endanger the lives of everyone else. This is what will, in fact, sour the relationship between Owen and Will when Owen gets wounded due to one of Will’s reckless, misguided, and misjudged adventures.