'The Hurt Locker': Hollywood's Idea of 'Not Political'

I jumped at the opportunity to join “The Hurt Locker” press junket. The film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow (“Point Break,” “Strange Days,” “Blue Steel”), has been a favorite of mine since catching a 3 a.m. Cinemax screening of “Near Dark” some twenty-five years ago. No director — not the Scott brothers, not Michael Bay or even Clint Eastwood understand or are able to get inside the skin of driven men of action like Bigelow. This makes even her rare misstep like “K:19 The Widowmaker” much more watchable than it deserves to be (actually, I watch it all the time).

The junkets are simple. You sit in a hotel room with other writers and one by one the film’s participants stop by for a few minutes. So, in no particular order, as a group we had the chance to interview Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal (“In the Valley of Elah”), who researched the film in Iraq, and actors Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty.

All were charming and personable to be sure, but whenever politics or previous Iraq War films came up, things would get a little tense and surreal as each responded by assuring us they weren’t worried because “Hurt Locker” wasn’t at all political. Again and again, the film was described as a straight-forward war picture that just happened to be set in Iraq.

Obviously with these anti-Iraq films flopping at a resounding 100% rate, you can understand why the subject was uncomfortable, but the disconnect between the film I saw just a few days earlier and what the participants seemed to sincerely believe was an apolitical action film, was striking.

Here are some of the story beats. [minor spoiler warning]

The film opens declaring its theme in writing: War is a Drug.

Renner [pictured above] plays Staff Sergeant William James, a soldier unable to function in the real world or sustain a normal relationship with his family, including a young child. War’s turned him into a reckless adrenaline addict who constantly puts himself and the men he’s in charge of in danger when defusing IEDs.

Actor David Morse has a cameo as a field commander, Colonel Reed, who’s portrayed as sadistic and slightly unstable. After an Iraqi civilian/suspect is shot, Reed’s informed the man’s life can be saved if medics are called in immediately. Reed refuses to even consider it, and as the dying man bleeds out, exhibits an unsettling admiration for James’s cowboy ways.

After an Iraqi cab driver (who inexplicably plowed through a road block) is roughly subdued, James says to the troopers handcuffing him, “If he wasn’t an insurgent, he sure the hell is now.”

As the armored vehicle carrying our protagonists passes by, a group of Iraqi children angrily hurl rocks at them.

Naturally, there’s the “They all look alike” remark directed at the Iraqi people by one of the leads.

And the Iraqi people get the worst of it. Something all these anti-war films share in common is a refusal to put a real human face on the people our military are fighting and dying for (this is the case in many anti-Vietnam war films, as well). To do so, to give the Iraqis humanity, works against the abandon-them-to-embarrass-George Bush goal. So instead of portraying them as people — as real, relatable human beings worthy of support and liberty — they’re stripped of humanity and turned into story-props: Villains, victims, foul-mouthed hustlers, or strange alien beings who keep an awkward distance and mourn the dead by yelling savagely at the sky.

Director Kathryn Bigelow

During the interviews, I didn’t press these specifics. They were emphatic the film was apolitical, so the question could only come off as argumentative. Besides, the plot points speak for themselves. How I interpret them is my opinion. Others may feel different. But I did ask everyone the actors what they thought drove the men who volunteered for the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) squad, which, though obviously dangerous, is difficult to get accepted into because of the skill level and personality requirements.

Only Renner (who memorably portrayed a heroic soldier in “28 Weeks Later“) had an answer. He remarked that the EOD personnel he spent time with while preparing for the role enjoyed the work and the bump in pay. It also offered unique career opportunities after military life was over. That’s a perfectly good answer and no doubt true.

However, the rest looked as though no one had ever asked that question before, which is interesting. You would think that this very “motivation” would be the prime characteristic in creating the foundation of the characters. This and the film’s actual portrayal of these characters makes clear that a sense of duty or a selfless desire to help others and serve a cause bigger than one’s self wasn’t a motivation remotely near the universe of anyone’s consideration.

To their credit, when it came to the military, all the participants spoke with respect, but there was certainly a disconnect, and it shows in the film.

“The Hurt Locker” starts it theatrical roll-out June 26th.

My review will post next week.

UPDATE: June 15th 7:37 a.m.: While preparing a follow-up interview, I reviewed the recordings of the junket and have updated the post to correct a misintepretation of my notes.


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