The Hollowness of 'The Hurt Locker'

It's unfashionable to carp about Hollywood's motives in handing out the Oscar for best picture. Savvy filmgoers are, at this late, cynical date, surely aware of the industry politics afoot, even if we reserve the right to howl privately about the worst offenses. Each awards season we are reminded that, in 1981, golden-boy Robert Redford's Ordinary Peoplebeat out Raging Bullby Martin Scorsese and The Elephant Manby David Lynch—a fact that, by itself, could suffice as a prosecuting attorney's closing argument in any civil action against the Academy. Yet this year an issue beyond taste is raised by the Oscar race: the cineplex's tortured response to the nation's ongoing war in Iraq. It's a howler that's actually worth bitching about.

This weighty complaint is prompted by Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, a sure-thing best-picture nominee set in 2004-era Iraq. Staff Sgt. William James (played by Jeremy Renner) is the recklessly brave, reliably effective bomb tech who defuses the IEDs that have plagued soldiers, and ordinary civilians, during the war. Like that of an old-school cowboy, the hero's manner of communication with colleagues and loved ones is either inarticulate or inchoate. He stands alone, guided by the purposefulness of his work instead of by feelings. Not that this is a choice; he simply knows no other way. Dedication to the pulse-quickening moment is all.

Taut with the suspense of back-to-back bomb-neutralization scenes that are each filmed with a hot-cheeked technique, Bigelow's picture has been celebrated for its eminently watchable qualities—after all, Lockeris a deft fusion of modern suspense editing and the focused emotional range of a generic Western. Bigelow has acknowledged that she didn't intend the film to be a piece of political commentary, but because an Iraq War film that commands you not to think about the complexity of the Iraq War can still lead people to think about Iraq, it's natural that many detect gravitas where it doesn't exist. Pro-war viewers can see a portrait of a sure-footed soldier saving the day over and over again, if they like. Antiwar folks can fill in their own narrative of imperial hubris and confusion in the scenes when James takes an ill-advised trip away from his base. Both readings are defensible, since neither section of the film is committed to anything like a particular understanding of Iraq as a country riven by multiple, overlapping conflicts. (Swap the booby traps of choice, the language used on the signs, and the sand with some jungle vines, and it could have been a Vietnam picture.) The most direct argument for the film's virtues along these lines was put forward in The New Yorker, which claimed both that The Hurt Lockerwas "the most skillful and emotionally involving picture yet made about the conflict" and that "American audiences worn out by the mixed emotions of frustration and repugnance inspired by the war can enjoy this film without ambivalence or guilt." Elsewhere, critic David Edelstein lent the same paradoxical duality some credence when he wrote of the film's selling points: "Last but maybe foremost are the politics—or lack of them."

Feeling worn out by politics is one thing. (Who isn't?) Celebrating their erasure is another. In asking whether Iraq War stories without ambivalence—or with politics that go unspoken—are really such a great accomplishment, it's worth remembering that it hasn't always been this way. Back in 1999, we could go to the movies and see Three Kings, a gripping entertainment that also made some effort to embrace the uniqueness of its wartime setting. In that film, something happened on the way to looting a pile of Saddam Hussein's hidden gold after the 1991 Gulf War: the soldiers played by George Clooney and Ice Cube couldn't help but notice that the minority Shiites America had encouraged to rise up against the Iraqi dictator were about to get put down with extreme prejudice after our military's exit. Yet the trio of post–"global war on terror" films this year—Locker, The Messenger, and Brothers—are all about the wounded American soldier, full stop. In a world that's only grown more complex in the interim, it's dispiriting to discover that all we're equipped for is feeling our own pain. The few recent dramas that tentatively suggested the world outside our wartime shell have been critically savaged for having had the temerity to address big questions. The shot of the flag that closes In the Valley of Elah was generally deemed a note struck too hard, while the unrelenting unpleasantness of Rendition was thought by many critics to be insufficiently imaginative. The one exception, when it comes to contextually specific "war on terror" pieces, is David Simon's 2008 HBO miniseries Generation Kill. But even that narrative concluded with a wave of Marines entering Baghdad in 2003. There's lots more of the story left for artists to tell us, though to do so they'll have to make peace with the idea of showing us this war for real, in all its specificity.

This flight from the distinct isn't taking place just in the movies, either. Our apparent desire to comment on Iraq only via the most opaque of methods is itself the dramatic engine of Point Omega, a subtle—perhaps too subtle—new novella from Don DeLillo. The author of Falling Manand Libra has long been interested in making the ghosts of modernity's machine manifest in his fiction—whether in telling the story of a World Trade Center survivor or in his summoning of a fictional Oswald—and this book is no different. The plot, slender as it is, involves a young filmmaker named Jim Finley shadowing a retired scholar who, before retrenching in the California desert, advised Pentagon officials on Iraq. At first Jim wants to engage the scholar in a documentary about his contributions in selling the war. (Think Errol Morris and Robert McNamara.) Not surprisingly, the idea doesn't take. But then the Mojave works a mood-altering spell: as Jim takes up unofficial residence with the scholar, his mind drifts to other topics (like the old man's daughter). Then, when preparing to quiz the man about his essay on the history of the word "rendition," the filmmaker hits a wall. Suddenly, like Bigelow, Jim decides to drop politics—or at least keep them to himself. After wondering what the scholar "had thought of the charge that he'd tried to find mystery in a word that was being used as an instrument of state security," Jim decides not to ask him about rendition (and, later, the documentary altogether). "The story was here, not in Iraq or in Washington," DeLillo's protagonist tells us toward the end of the story, adding, "we were leaving it behind and taking it with us, both."

DeLillo is onto something here: being explicit about our Iraq-related vagueness is a welcome change. There is some benefit to the fact that we can see his characters make the conscious choice to banish the politics of the war, since we can then draw our own conclusions about whether this is healthy. Still, the question of what enables this radical solipsism is left a touch underdeveloped in Point Omega. A possible answer is put forward in a sharp recent book, The Left at War, in which scholar Michael Bérubé argues that we have yet to fully thrash through military debates about "humanitarian intervention" since the Kosovo conflict. "All traditional alignments of left and right became useless in the Balkans," Bérubé writes, noting that the politics of foreign military adventure have remained tangled in the years since, with coalitions of neoconservatives and neoliberals fighting against an odd partnership of Chomskyites and Buchananite isolationists (that is, once the rationale for Iraq War II shifted from WMDs to democracy promotion). If Bérubé is correct that Kosovo represented a breakdown in left-right tussles over military force, it makes sense that our war stories in the period since seem less than eager to approach the politics of the broader "war on terror" that kicked off after 9/11. What's interesting is that Hollywood dramas, despite their reputation for message-oriented liberalism, have actually taken a big, fat pass on saying anything provocative on the topic. At this point, it's only Bérubé's mash of strange-bedfellow ideologues—DeLillo's fictional scholar among them—who are putting forward the claims, while artists like Jim the filmmaker give up any ambition to put the debates under a new lens.

The problem is that this is what artists were put on earth to do: to give us insight and catharsis, not merely riff on the free-floating tensions that already dominate the mass consciousness. The conventional wisdom is that Iraq War films have foundered at the box office because we have no appetite for them, but it might be that our appetite for them has been slight because they offer precious little nutrition. Nearly all of them are telling us pretty familiar war-is-hell narratives, even if those narratives are skillfully rendered in a technical sense. The Hurt Lockergives us not only no context but no hint that the context is missing, since it mines the adrenaline of combat without mussing itself in the viscera of anything as dangerous as ideology. It's a rip-roaring piece of suspense cinema, but decidedly no more than that. Whether it wins or loses, though, allow me this one Oscar-night prediction: The Hurt Locker will invariably be described as a brave work of art that is working to tell us something about an important issue. No one ever said Hollywood wasn't skilled at putting over illusions.