Registering the Registry 2020: The Hurt Locker (2008)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, we look back on history with the first film to win a woman the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 movie The Hurt Locker! Of course, there’s much more going on with the film regarding its handling of realism in a war picture, its views on the Iraq War, and its examination of a man who revels in the battle regarding whether it’s the rush or something deeper behind his eyes, but mentioning the awards trivia got your attention, didn’t it? Anyhow, onward!

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As time presses on, the National Film Registry must increasingly deal in films defined by the country’s political and cultural reaction to 9/11. We have arrived at a point where K-12 schools are entirely populated by children who weren’t conceived when the Twin Towers fell, and it won’t be long before the same is true of universities and even graduate programs. Those roughly my age were scarcely on the cusp of consciousness outside our homes on September 11th, 2001, and we’re supposed to be the ones with the buying power and culture-shaping habits in a hypothetical scenario not dominated by the old guard clinging to wealth and power far longer than necessary. The four hijackings from that day and their disastrous impact on America’s self-championed institutions — a sense of unity and togetherness without the need for internal division or a motivating hatred of an other, trust in a government motivated by something other than pure profit, some measure of certainty the most extremified political voices would remain at the fringes, any notion of news networks as news sources and not entertainment venues — they’re all effectively history at this point, part of the great gulf in time the young will forever view as how things have always been. Things only grow murkier with the passage of time, the particulars easier to forget or rationalize despite having taken place right at a nexus point in the exploding digital Information Age. So many of our collective woes at present can trace their roots back to nationwide agreement any of this was ever normal or acceptable. With the passage of years, films which look the War on Terror dead in the eye and call it the willful tragedy it was and is must form as much a part of the National Film Registry’s library as films doing the same for the Vietnam War have in classes past.

It is, therefore, somewhat disappointing the Library of Congress’ first forays into highlighting films touched by these events have proven so feather-touched about acknowledging America’s failures in reacting to terrorist attacks on our soil. Of twelve inducted films from the 21st century, nine were released after the 9/11 attacks, but three come anywhere near acknowledging our collective shame: The Fog of War merely allows Robert McNamara to waffle about hoping the modern military doesn’t repeat his mistakes from Vietnam without ever identifying what those mistakes were in concrete terms or fully admitting they were HIS mistakes, while The Dark Knight coaches its criticism of the Bush administration’s arrogance in a heavy veil of the Batman mythos and brand expectations. Obliqueness about the war’s morality and justification rules the day in these pictures largely because obliqueness about the war’s morality and justification had its day in America for years, long after a plurality of citizens realized our leadership duped us into a mistake. With this, we’ve still far too many people who view these military actions as America rightly kicking ass against people who deserved it, and not blindly lashing out at targets whose destabilization benefitted the wealthy more than anyone in either country. As of writing, we’re only two or three weeks away from LoC’s announcement on the 2021 Registry class, so hopefully my pining here has as much prophetic implication as my bemoaning the lack of non-Disney feature-length animation while discussing Sleeping Beauty did when Shrek entered the Registry’s numbers. Until then, we’re left with only today’s feature to round out the trinity, and while it takes place right in the shit of the Iraq War, it is also famous for purposefully avoiding any political commentary on the war or its rationale.

We’ll talk whether or not Kathryn Bigelow’s work on The Hurt Locker truly takes an apolitical stance on these matters in a moment. For now, my mind is drawn towards the factor that earned it so much critical acclaim back on release, the big selling point what pushed it over the line and earned it six out’ve nine Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture, the latter two a first at the Oscars for films helmed by a woman. See, The Hurt Locker is The Realistic Iraq War Movie, the one that outwardly rejects glorification of combat or literary-minded questioning about the morality of warfare in favor of putting you right there in Baghdad, boots on the ground with an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit as they struggle through the last months of their overseas tour. Pretty composed shots are passed over in favor of jittery handheld footage edited from over 200 hours of multiangle coverage, conventional narrative falls to the side so we can follow the thudding sameiness of rushing out to deal with bomb after bomb after bomb, notions about any of these men being all the way heroic or idealized are stomped as Jeremy Renner plays his Sergeant First Class William James as a reckless, cocky, dangerous asshole with regular reminders this personality is deadly rather than cool. Of course, all this critical praise for the film as a Realistic War Movie has also earned it a simultaneous reputation from veterans as a fucking ridiculous disgrace to the concept of realism, with no right to call itself an immersive representation of the war when it gets so many things wrong. See how ludicrous it is when two bomb disposal experts are somehow adequately trained to engage in an hours-long sniper duel across miles of terrain, how suicidally incompetent the chain of command must be to send an EOD unit out on its own and not as a support division, how laughable it is to imagine a man like William James — who flippantly ignores orders and blindly tugs on unknown wires and regularly leaves his entire team exposed to potential explosive death — tolerated in the field longer than a single thrown middle finger, much less the excess of eight-hundred disposal jobs he cites. How can this be Realistic if they bungle their fidelity so often, so flagrantly?

Let’s scratch at this for a minute, why don’t we. There’s no doubt The Hurt Locker is terribly unrealistic if you know a thing about how the US military is supposed to conduct its affairs in overseas conflicts, its characters permitted to behave the way they do and get away with it for the good of the story. Movie needs the characters in a situation radically different than what they normally face, they’ll get pinned down and defend themselves against sniper fire to force some do-or-die bonding. Movie needs a strange moment of tension amidst what’s otherwise a sequence of breaking down barriers, James is gonna be allowed a collection of parts from bombs he neutralized under his bed despite the fact he REALLY shouldn’t have those. Movie needs to make a point about how the strain of losing the few things he holds sacred is breaking James when he’s still required to perform under the same pressure as always, a little late night vigilantism excursion away from the base won’t catch him unending court marshal hell. To a vet or active service member, I shan’t begrudge a one of these oft-cited complaints on their own — movies are ultimately collaborative projects whose courses are determined by many voices behind the camera, and it’s possible to achieve many of these results without engaging in depictions of army conduct that would never fly in the idealized army. I should, however, like to extend this scratching towards a scene I think best contextualizes all these: the brief encounter with David Reese’s Colonel Reed after James’ second defusal job. At this point in the film, the quick cutting between long disposal scenes has given us the impression there’s hardly any downtime from job to job (thus hardly any time to report James for poor or dangerous behavior), and Reed marks the first superior officer we’ve seen the whole movie. For his part, he’s head over heels on James’ hype, inappropriately fanboying over meeting a living legend, openly praising the guy as a wild man whose infractions against good, safe conduct only make his infallible track record all the more impressive. From the way Anthony Mackie’s Sgt. JT Sanborn reacts at the margins, it’s plenty clear nothing he reports James on will ever make it too far up the chain of command before it rams against someone who considers the results and the daredevil attitude admirable rather than outrageous.

Many elements within the movie are unrealistic, particularly those dealing with skills beyond what the characters should have or James’ worst infractions against army code late in the picture, but I contend also the common root complaint about James as someone who shouldn’t be in the army doing this job is one the movie shares. Sanborn serves as our perspective character for much of the runtime, always tugging at his shorthairs in frustration when James tosses down a smokebomb to obscure his movements from friend and foe alike without warning, threatens a potential civilian at gunpoint just to clear his path, treats the defusal job like a game of cat and mouse between himself and the bombmaker, forces a team of just two men to cover him against what could easily be dozens of snipers on a job they could easily abandon with no consequence. The opening ten minute sequence sees Sanborn and Brian Geraghty’s specialist Eldridge engaged in an earlier defusal job with Guy Pearce’s Sgt. Thompson, and despite their following protocol and best practice to the letter, a single second’s hesitation on Eldridge’s part leaves Thompson too close to the blast when it prematurely detonates, killing him in the process. Here we have a man who’s seen up close and personal how razor thin the line between life and death can be when there’s unexploded ordinance around, and now he has to deal with a man who shirks his protective bomb suit when the payload’s too large, acts belligerent when told to stand down, walks and talks as if his victory against another explosive matters more than whether anyone else gets out alive. There’s a dark scene late in the first act when James forces Sanborn and Eldridge to leave a practice round primed live for detonation so he can retrieve an easily replaced pair of gloves from the blast site, and Sanborn just slowly turns the thought of letting the trigger go on his tongue, measuring the worth of making it look like an accident bad enough to change regulation and never allow someone so cocksure near a bomb ever again.

Every instance of poor, dangerous practice on James’ part, the film condemns through Sanborn’s obvious displeasure. It is only through the knowledge of commanders inclined to look on this behavior as admirable that he is remotely permitted day after day continued operation. If anything deserves the name “realistic” in The Hurt Locker, it’s the acknowledgement of the US military as fallible, containing people who will shirk regulation for their own personal reasons, negligent officers who look on war as a chance to find soldiers like James who’ll make a good story or two years down the line, a badge of honor for having met a badass. Certainly not all officers, certainly not all soldiers, certainly not guaranteed to get away with it on a long enough timespan, but any conflict involves some measure of dickheadery from personnel all down the line, and to pretend the entire military adheres to its own regulations hard and fast in every instance, no soldier allowing any chicanery on their watch because the line to the top is always clear and free from corruption… that, I think, is more unrealistic than the possibility of a soldier like James getting away with it because he’s just so damned good at his job. His constant, near-miraculous record of perfect successes only makes the knowledge he could one day get himself and everyone around him killed because the higher-ups loved him so much all the more galling.

Course, The Hurt Locker wouldn’t be worth much if it presented James as purely a wildcard incapable of empathetic thought or deed. Much of what you’d call the film’s second act is dedicated to showing there’s a man worth knowing and calling a brother in arms, in large ways and small. The extended sniper duel stands as the biggest example herein, a brief interlude with Ralph Fiennes’ PMC group interrupted by gunfire from afar, requiring Sanborn to take up the sniper rifle, James to play spotter, and Eldridge to act as behind-cover support while they trade shots and stretch the waiting game out for hours. It’s possibly the tensest stretch of the film, beyond any bomb defusal scenes, and despite the ridiculousness necessary for it to happen in the first place, it plants a realization that James does have others’ backs when the chips are down, keeping Sanborn properly hydrated and holding Eldridge’s wavering mental state together with reassuring words as the sun sinks lower in the sky and their adversary slinks around back. The smaller, less cinematically showy illustrations of James’ depths stand at equal importance, though — his bond with Beckham, a young Iraqi boy who sells burnt DVDs and plays soccer outside the base, the unit finally relaxing and trading stories about their lives back home, with an edge of tension to remind us James can still go too far even when everyone’s guards are down, push Sanborn to knife blade’s self-defense with too much horseplay. It’s in the way Bigelow expands the film’s scope outside the unit during these middle passages, lets us get to know players outside the core two, including an increased emphasis on Eldridge’s relationship with Christian Camargo as Lieutenant Colonel Cambridge, the base’s psychologist whose counsel he seeks after Thompson’s death. To be certain, the film remains a shaky, taut sinewed portrait of those last days on deployment, when the looming prospect of freedom makes the world’s refusal to change from status quo feel all the more hellish, yet it reveals a softer, vulnerable side round the middle. Revealed just in time to gut it straight through.

Frankly, although the third act gutting is necessary structurally, so we might see James’ pain when circumstances finally slip beyond his control, I have to question whether The Hurt Locker overemphasizes this aspect compared against what comes next. To wit: a routine sweep uncovers a pop-up IED lab where the unit discovers Beckham’s corpse wired into a crude bomb, one James insists upon defusing himself rather than safely detonating at a distance. On the same trip, Cambridge is killed after he rides along to get away from the monotony of desk work and trips a bomb nobody noticed while trying to clear the area, further traumatizing Eldridge. James attempts to hunt down the people who killed Beckham by leaving the base late at night and prowling the nearby village, only to terrorize some innocent citizens and trigger the base’s defenses when he comes back in disgrace. Spared immediate discipline by his required presence on a late night recon mission to the cratered blast site of a major explosion, James starts seeing signs of insurgents in the dark and divides the unit to hunt them down in the murky shadows of ruined buildings, a choice which ends in Eldridge’s near capture and actual crippling when James and Sanborn regroup to fire blindly at the men dragging him away, shattering his femur. Shortly after, James and Sanborn are called in to deal with a translator who was kidnapped and outfitted with a deadlocked suicide vest on a timer, and James forces himself to struggle against the man’s steel padlock bonds until the last possible second, fleeing just far enough to only be badly concussed as he finally fails to disarm a bomb. S’a lot of happenings, innit?

The third act lasts roughly forty minutes and change, and these events consume some thirty-five minutes thereof. They represent The Hurt Locker turning cruel, crueler than baseline, denying James his superhuman track record and exposing him as someone who can crack and crumble and fail like any other soldier. They are also all somewhat requisite beats based on everything we’ve laid down across the picture thus far: the humanizing aspects from Beckham and Cambridge demand their deaths and James’ subsequent impotent shortchange revenge, the film’s occasional focus on Eldridge as the longest and hardest suffering of the squad demands he eventually take a bullet from James and chew the man right the hell out for everything he’s done, the emphasis on bomb defusal and James’ seeming invincibility demands he eventually fail. We get a lot of good from these sequences, like James seeing another boy who looks almost identical to Beckham running around the base with a soccer ball and DVDs as reminder the war’ll just keep grinding on no matter who he loses, or Sanborn finally breaking down himself during the ride back to base after the translator’s death and tearfully confessing he just wants out, wants to leave this place forever and have a son and raise a family and never come back, physically or mentally. The Hurt Locker is practically incomplete if we leave any of these moments off the table, declare any of them inoperative towards its total function, and yet I am stuck wondering whether the film wouldn’t be better if it held back and removed one or two.

Understand, it is not remotely difficult to grasp the themes behind The Hurt Locker; Bigelow spells them out quite explicitly with an epigram from war correspondent Christopher Hedges. “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” To make the addictive, destructive nature of a man who looks on the battlefield as his only respite against self-oblivion clear, we must in turn struggle against the oldest enemy of any war picture, the impossibility of depicting war in a visual narrative medium without making it look appealing to the impressionable mind. Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal, Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, they can write and perform and select and tinker all they like to make us understand William James’ actions as those of a dangerous hothead whose successes should not outweigh the potentially lethal situations he makes possible through his hubris, should not endear us to him in the same way he endears himself to corrupt men higher on the chain of command. Doesn’t much matter, because the bedrock of this depiction is a man striding through Baghdad like an action hero in a bomb suit, remaining cool under pressure, pulling through what seem like impossible saves. You and I can watch the movie and know he fails time and again in the third act, but keeping us in Iraq and watching as he tries and fucks up many times in a row keeps us in a filmic mode flattering to any mind who watches this and comes away thinking on James as hero or idol. One need not dig too deep into military-minded discussions about The Hurt Locker to find horror stories from recruitment or training officers who had to deal with kids who wanted a place in the armed services because they watched this movie and thought Jeremy Renner was sooooooo cool and badass.

If we stay in Iraq too long, James’ redeployment at movie’s close runs the risk of coloring him an adrenaline junkie, someone who craves the action above all else. It is because this impression seems so common amongst the film’s detractors that I consider it poor form for James’ return home to occupy a scant five montaged minutes. In CONCEPT it’s an outright brilliant passage, placing this man who never fully broke where everyone around him eventually shattered into environs where his greatest challenges are choosing which breakfast cereal to buy at the supermarket, cleaning leaves from his gutters on a cold, wet day, getting through preparations for dinner without spilling his guts out to a wife who simply doesn’t have the shared experience necessary to fully grasp what’s wrong. Unfortunately, the idea’s mishandled by its brevity, giving us just enough time to appreciate James is somewhere he doesn’t quite belong before he heaves a sigh and cuts back to another 365 days of deployment. It’s the opposite issue Oliver Stone faced in Platoon, wherein Charlie Sheen’s narrated letters from home took us too far from a horrifying situation for the full weight to settle on our faces — here, the agony of homecoming is deemphasized to the point of making it seem he misses the daredevil opportunities of war, when nothing could be further from the truth.

What James faces is not the pull to be back in the shit, the little tingle at the back of his neck when he’s faced against a bomb and potentially open by sniper fire from all angles. From the way he bonds with his squadmates and gives so easily into aimless revenge, the way he looks so hurt when Eldridge curses him out as an irredeemable bastard so soon after they finally found some common ground, the way he tries to keep it bottled up while Sanborn finally gives in and weeps at not having what James’ got at home, what James actually wants from the war is a sense he can control things, a sense he belongs, a purpose in life with actual consequence behind success or failure. There’s no chance to sit back and appreciate the fact he saved lives today in suburban America, no chance to gain some peace in his soul for having ensured others get another day, or make up for the mistakes he made during his last days overseas. If he takes too long to clear the leaves, there’s no pressure, he can just pick up the pace. If he can’t decide between Cheerios or Apple Jacks in time, there’s always another minute to think. If he sticks around to raise his son and watch as the little magics in pajamas and jack-in-the-boxes and having mommy or daddy around dull in his eyes, there’s nothing he can do except watch and try to counter the same grind at the same agonizingly slow pace it took him. This is a man so comforted by having men he can trust at his side in life-or-death situations with the whole world compressed down to a trigger he can hold and master in his hand, he is now afraid of the banalities in comfortable life, where everything is so much more complex and yet so much less impactful. Somehow, someway, this vital revelation about the man constitutes a slim five-minute montage; no wonder so many walk away from the picture thinking he’s an adrenaline junkie only going back for the thrill.

And just… imagine what a transformative difference we would see if James’ return to America played out with the length of him working on the daisy chained bombs, or the overlarge car comb, or laying against the ridge spotting for snipers. If we sacrificed a slim ten minutes’ runtime, one or two somewhat extraneous subplots to really dig into what it means for a man like James to go home, and be afraid when there’s nobody drawing sights on the base of his skull. To deny us the last failed defusal or the blackout terrorist hunt, shuffle some of the good drawn from these sequences to earlier passages and deny an extension of the action movie visual language, to make it clear these new challenges are actually too much for him. They shouldn’t be, they really should not prove so insurmountable to a man who’s defused over eight hundred bombs, laughing in death’s face all the while. The comforts of home, the fact he has a wife and a son just like Sanborn said he wanted in a cracked voice with tears in his eyes, to never again worry about whether he’s right or wrong on the location of an IED’s trigger, these should be mana from heaven to this man, and yet something has broken. He has been reprogrammed by circumstance to take pleasure and comfort in doing things alien to a healthy condition, and nobody bothered to give him any help when he came home, nobody bothered to make sure he had somebody he could talk to. William James is more alone and terrified and aware of the fact he will die one day when holding those cereal boxes down aisle nine than he is when there’s a sniper in the distance or a bomb inches from his face, and I really do think The Hurt Locker would be a stronger movie, one not subject to such a bad reputation amongst military personnel, if it made clear the pull of an addiction to certainty and lethe for the fear by presenting Jeremy Renner in suburbia with the same long, dull, aching tension as it presents Jeremy Renner contending against unexploded ordinance.

Imagine facing the modern soldier’s real-time terror at simply being you in the same bleary-eyed clarity with which we confront a bomb. The Hurt Locker is missing this, and so cannot be called complete by its own standards of realistically confronting the war.

I do not fully agree with the conclusions herein, but watching this did help me form the views expressed in this article, so I’d be remiss without mentioning it.

This difficulty closing on the right note seems a recurrent issue in Bigelow’s filmography, one I’ve also noted in Near Dark from over twenty years prior. Does this mean I’m about to declare The Hurt Locker an unworthy addition to the Registry? Hardly, I’ll likely never take such action, and the film’s strengths in Renner’s performance and the tense mood Bigelow captures remain. In fact, I’ll take a step further and say the film’s weakness in adequately addressing an Iraq War vet’s homecoming experience as reason they might want to return marks a strength with respect to the Registry. Consider thusly: this is where we collectively were in 2008, the extent to which the mainstream culture could accept a large-scale cinematic address of the nation’s failings in Iraq. Even when we’re in the midst of a firefight with our men in uniform, when we’re explicitly dealing with the traumas of war and how they can hollow a body, doing everything we can to avoid the glorification common to other war movies and implicitly calling out the brass for allowing it all to happen, we just cannot help but flatter the usual image, stay chained to the image of the war, play with the actual lingering pain and isolation that fueled an entire generation’s service in an unjust conflict like it’s an afterthought compared to the sights and sounds and sensations of the militarized zones. While I shan’t call it negligent, being as the film does still come down in saying the war leaves a man complete, it misses the target on WHY he is incomplete when it’s just sitting right there, in the text. Far better to capture the grit of combat than the pain of a veteran’s isolation in our backyard. You win more awards that way. Ptooey.

It is my firm belief the National Film Registry must house our shortcomings and failures much as our triumphs, and per this understanding we can view The Hurt Locker’s inclusion as a milemarker. This is where the American filmic conversation on Iraq and Afghanistan and the whole baloney War on Terror Was at the transition from Bush to Obama; this self-compromised, incomplete vision of a man who cannot stop was hailed as the best we could possibly get. The task now falls to us, to find what better there was, to make better in the future, to never let the conversation die until we can truly look on our history with clear eyes, and even then keep it going as a guard against complacency. To leave this as the first and only open word on the matter in our national canon would be the gravest mistake. After all, the past only keeps growing, an insufficiently tall reminders to what it was really like sink beneath the waves of time in the blink of an eye.

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And, breathe. ‘Nother hefty article today, but we saw it through to the end, so now I wanna hear from you! How’d you lot feel about the movie’s handling on its myriad issues around soldiering and warfare? Think it deserved any of them awards it picked up along the way? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and do look forward to two weeks hence, when we come to the end of our journey with the 2020 Registry class! Courtesy Stanley Nelson Jr. for PBS’ American Experience program, we’ll hear and watch the stories of activists who challenged southern states’ refusal to comply with Supreme Court rulings against segregation in public transit through 2010’s Freedom Riders. PBS has it for free on their site, Kanopy offers it with a library card, Hoopla with a subscription, and Amazon Prime’s got it for rental or purchase. Catch y’all for the final installment in this year’s batch!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter, answers questions on tumblr, and accepts donations on ko-fi.

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I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/gargus

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Gargus

Gargus

I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/gargus

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