"The Hurt Locker": When Great Art Meets Lousy Politics

I despise the implicit pro-Iraq War politics of "The Hurt Locker": There is no examination or even mention in the film of why the U.S. might be fighting there, no look at the neo-conservative ideology that sent our troops there, no questioning of the aggressive tactics aimed at Iraqi civilians, no overt politics at all, for that matter. But I cannot deny the movie’s aesthetic power. It is a great film, one of the few war movies that really got into my gut. It well deserves its Best Picture Oscar.
It’s possible that director Kathryn Bigelow made this film as a love-poem to the American troops abroad, but it works on so many other levels as well. In one sense, it’s even possible to view it as an anti-war, pro-quick withdrawal movie.
In scene after scene, the U.S. troops in Iraq clearly are shown as an aggressive, swaggering army of occupation, which soon comes to realize that the Iraqis, almost all of them they meet, don’t want the U.S. troops in their country. It would be easy to surmise that a good share of the violence in that country most likely will cease once the Americans leave.
"The Hurt Locker," in this interpretation, seems to be suggesting that the American troops are not just fighting the "insurgents" — they seem to be waging war against huge chunks, perhaps close to a majority, of the Iraqi population that wants their country back. At least one can read that aspect of the film in such a way.
You know, or perhaps have heard, what "The Hurt Locker" is about: a unit of bomb-defusers go out every day to find IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that Iraqi "insurgent" forces have buried on or hidden next to the road down which U.S. convoys drive, or have secreted huge amounts of ordinance in the trunks of cars that can be detonated by cell-phones when American personnel pass by.
Wearing 100-lb. bomb-protection suits (in 100-degree weather in Iraq!), the bomb defuser’s job is to locate the IEDs and render them harmless, or, if not, to blow them up in a way that will do no damage to U.S. forces. The bomb defusers sometimes die when things go wrong.
Given the dangers faced by this squad, there is no let-up in the tension. The least mistake and they’re lying in pieces in the sand. My stomach was tied in knots for most of the movie, which I saw many months ago when the film opened here in San Francisco.
I keep telling my wife (who doesn’t want to see it) that the occasional violence in the movie is not the point of "The Hurt Locker."
What the movie really is about is how these gung-ho warriors deal with the tension and threats of destruction they face every moment they are in Iraq.
It’s also about the adrenalin high they’re on and what happens when these gung-ho warriors get back home and have to deal with the relative quiet of suburban peacetime. It’s not a pretty picture and, like the lead character in the movie (played brilliantly by Jeremy Renner, who deserved an Oscar), many want to return to the war zone as soon as they can. That’s the environment in which these warriors thrive.
I found director Kathryn Bigelow’s remarks at the Oscar Awards ceremony a bit puzzling. She went out of her way at least twice to shower U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with glory and praise. Methinks she doth protest too much. Why? I can only offer some reasonable speculation:
With its Best Picture award, there is no doubt that this small, independent film will be snapped up for widespread, mainstream exhibition in multiplexes around the country. There already had been a low-key, word-of-mouth campaign from the far-right to denigrate "The Hurt Locker" as insufficiently patriotic. Better to try to head that one off early, to get middle-American butts on the movie-house seats.
Perhaps that rightwing campaign was instigated after someone happened to read Bigelow’s 2008 remarks about the movie, published in the Internet Movie Data Base.
"Perhaps just because I just came off The Hurt Locker and I’m thinking of the war and I think it’s a deplorable situation. It’s a great medium in which to speak about that," Bigelow said. "This is a war that cannot be won. Why are we sending troops over there? Well, the only medium I have, the only opportunity I have, is to use film. There will always be issues I care about."< (emphasis supplied)
As suggested above, it seems clear to me that Bigelow wanted to show the reality of what U.S. troops face in Iraq, which she has done brilliantly, and her Best Director Oscar is well-earned. But she didn’t want to bring overt politics into the movie. Now that the film is on the fast-track to financial mass-success, she’s got to try to wrap the film in pro-military trappings to balance out her earlier questioning of the reasons for the war.
True, "The Hurt Locker" should have been made and released many years ago, long before the U.S. had started its slow withdrawal from active combat and maybe even from the country next year. But what makes the film so powerful is that what appears on the screen is of universal application to all wars and to all troops, of whatever nation, facing an enemy in deadly combat.
Certainly, the film can easily refer to U.S. behavior in Afghanistan, yet another misadventure in which American lives will be lost for a war that cannot be won.
There is a larger issue, one I can only touch on briefly here: How should liberals/progressives react to brilliant works by artists who do not share their politics, indeed may be antagonistic to their politics? Is it OK to laud the work of art as art but to denounce the artist’s underlying point of view?
Leni Riefenstahl’s two films "Olympia" and "The Triumph of the Will," for example, in the 1930s and ’40s, clearly were fascist propaganda films, the impact of which was to glorify the Nazi campaign to take over Europe. It’s easy to dismiss those films on that ground, but one can’t dismiss them aesthetically. They are brilliant works of art.
It’s a generalization but I think based on some truth: Artists, in the main, being those who raise questions and push conventional envelopes, tend to congregate on the more liberal end of the spectrum.
But there are a goodly number of great artists on the right, many of them anti-Semitic or racist or colonialist in mentality. Does one dismiss or boycott or condemn their exceptional, exciting work because in their private life, the artists are biased and bigoted?
Is it possible, or even desirable, to separate the art from the artist?
Let’s deal with that ticklish conundrum at another time. (Or you can get the discussion started by contacting me at [email protected]). Right now, I urge you to hie yourself to the movie theater to check out "The Hurt Locker," one of the great war movies of all time.